Monday
Jan262015

Endless

One book seems to always call for another. I had scarcely finished posting my September 1st blog about Rory’s Promise by Michaela MacColl when my October issue of The Writer came in the mail. (I could wonder why magazines always come the month before their date, but that would be off topic.) This issue had an interview with Christina Baker Kline about her book Orphan Train, also set in the turn of the century phenomenon of relocating New York City orphans on trains heading west.

I watch NCIS and have learned from Leroy Jethro Gibbs that there is no such thing as coincidence. Clearly, this was a call to find Kline’s book. Thankfully, it was in paperback at the bookstore at 30% off.

The books have some differences. Rory’s Promise is listed as middle grade and Orphan Train as adult, a distinction I found insignificant. I enjoyed both, and middle grade has been in my rearview window for quite a while. At least by junior high, bookworms like me at that age, would enjoy Orphan Train.

The train of Rory's Promise drops off one set of orphans in the Midwest and continues on to the wild West for the final destination of its protagonist. Orphan Train has two narratives running parallel, the Irish orphan who begins her story on the train and completes it on the Midwest stop and a present day troubled Penobscot teen who navigates the foster care system. Each of these stories is better than the other.

Besides the orphan train, the books have a couple of things in common. Both are well-researched and tell the story true. Both are the kind of reads that had me holding the book in one hand while stirring the pot on the stove with the other. I recommend reading them back to back to see what different stories two writers can wrest from the same setting.  

As for me, I see that Christine Baker Kline has four more novels already out. So I’m adjusting my original premise. In this case, one book leads to another which leads to four more. Cheapskate that I am, I think I’ll look for them first at the library.

Friday
Jan232015

Three Sips of Beauty

For more than twenty years, The Back Door Coffeehouse of University Baptist Church has held a monthly forum for writers and musicians on the first Friday night of each month with only an occasional skip. The artists are local, national, amateur, professional, sometimes thought provoking, often funny, and almost never boring. I often get an idea from one of the performers that goes into my “blog ideas” folder. This particular one has been waiting a while.

Sara Beth Geoghegan, one of my favorites, has made several appearances interspersing her music with stories that bring both tears and laughter. As I started to write this blog, I put on her CD, Tired of Singing Sad Songs, which includes sad songs in spite of its title. The album has a song whose story resonated with me. “Three Sips of Beauty” honors her aunt’s twelve years of sobriety. According to the story she tells with it, her aunt believes people need three sips of beauty each day. The laugh came when she said four would put you into the M&Ms.

I liked the idea of finding three bits of beauty in each day, though I have not been consistent with looking. The idea comes back to me especially when we are in the midst of these dreary gray days of winter. Of course, the easiest place to see beauty is outdoors so I went looking.

Easy to spot are the nandina with their cheerful red berries and burgundy foliage. And who would not notice the ornamental kale with its curly white leaves nestled inside the dark green? Looking up at the stark leafless tree, I was surprised by beauty in the filigree against the gray sky. Truth to tell, I could have found more than three, but the Christmas weight is not off, and I don’t need to get into the M&Ms.

May you find your three sips of beauty today, including a surprise or two. And if you get more than three, go ahead, have some M&Ms.

Monday
Jan192015

The Same Sky

Like two trains traveling toward each other at erratic speeds over unknown rails, with diversions onto sidetracks, the stories of Carla in Tegucigalpa and Alice in Texas move toward each other. The reader of The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward may wonder from time to time if the two stories will ever come together. The closest I’ll come to a spoiler is an assurance that this becomes one story, not two.

The book opens with Carla left with her grandmother and her twin brothers when her mother goes to America. Soon, one of the brothers goes into a car trunk to be smuggled into the United States. The author leaves the reader, along with Carla, wondering what happens after the car pulls away. Switching to Alice in the next chapter, as she will do throughout the book, she establishes compassion for a woman trying to figure out whether to cancel the adoption celebration when the birth mother changes her mind and takes back the baby she has held only briefly.

Carla’s story includes taking care of the remaining brother who eases his hunger pain by sniffing glue. Knowing what this will do to his mind, she remains helpless to do anything about it. Her relationship with Humberto adds a bit of romance to temper this anxiety and the responsibility that comes when her grandmother dies. The overarching question is whether to stay with the danger in Honduras or face the danger of using the coyotes who will take her money in exchange for a promise to get her across the border to America.

Alice’s story is filled with typical family pressures and interactions, an attempt to be a mentor to a teenager on the edge, and lots of Texas barbecue. She needs to find out who she is and how she really relates to her husband.

This is a book that puts a human face on the statistics of immigration. It won’t solve the problem or even suggest solutions. It will give a vivid picture of what it would be like to be one of the children caught in that dilemma. 

Friday
Jan162015

Place

Our pastor’s sermon centered on the importance of place. As often happens, my mind trailed off. Fortunately, it can multitask so I heard what he said (really, I did) while I followed a mental rabbit to a dogtrot house in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

My grandfather and our family referred to his small farm in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi as “The Place,” capitals heard even in the pronunciation. Papaw’s place was his section of the land that had originally belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. The homestead deed to William Hannah, signed by President Buchanan, lists the date as “the first day of October in the year of OUR LORD one thousand eight hundred and fifty-nine and of the Independence of the United States eighty fourth.” (They liked capital letters back in those days.) My picture of both the house and the deed are copies of the originals.

Papaw, the only grandparent I knew, began and ended his days belonging to this land at least as much as it belonged to him. Seldom did he travel farther than twenty-five miles from home. Dairy cows and “The Place” bound him to a daily routine.

His house, built when his oldest child – my mother – was a preschooler, used a fireplace and a wood stove in the kitchen for heat. He cut and stockpiled wood during lax times with his crops, anticipating winter days and nights when he rose from his rocker to add a log or stoke the fire. When grandchildren came, he raked the logs back to expose hot coals, shelled an ear of popcorn into his wire basket, and popped corn with a delicious smoky taste.

My sense of place goes back here. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and wife of an Army husband, I’ve lived in 32 houses. My roots in a place have to go back a couple of generations.

The Hannah family sold The Place a few years ago with great sadness to the three generations following my grandfather. It was the only practical thing to do. None of us were ever going back there to live. Unlike Papaw, we wouldn’t have found joy in confinement to the schedules and routines of a farm.

I inherited the wire popcorn popper. For the first time, I live in a house where I plan to stay, and it has a fireplace! Unfortunately, I don’t grow popcorn, and the basket of the popper no longer works properly. Still, as I leave my nest on the couch to add another log or stoke the fire in my fireplace, I remember and know my pastor was  right. In my mind, I travel back to my roots with Papaw and relish the sense of Place. 

Monday
Jan122015

Life after Life

Sometimes, no, make that always, a problem with making friends with another avid reader is that your already lengthy reading stack gets taller and taller. Let me illustrate. Friend Ellen Ruffin called to see if I would like to go with her to the Louisiana Book Festival. Now, who could turn down that kind of invitation? She particularly wanted to hear Jill McCorkle, a favorite author to her but a new one to me.

Jill entertained us with her conservative mother’s dilemma of whether to tell her friends that her daughter wrote books because of some of her characters’ language and situations. Then she began to tell about the book idea that had lingered in her head for twenty-one years, coming to the forefront when her father was dying. She read excerpts from Life after Life, this novel based in a hospice situation told from the points of view of the case worker Joanna, the patients, a friend, and one twelve-year-old. A couple of quotes from the book will illustrate why I needed to add it to my stack.

“Sometimes your only chance to beat out a prejudice is to outlive it.”

“Everyone has a weakness and how humans can live with devoting time to rubbing salt in and on another, she will never know.”

Contrary to what you might think, the book is not a downer, though it is filled with death. I think that may be because it reflects something Jill said in her speech, “At the end, we are our memories and the memories we leave behind us in other people.” The memories of the patients and the entries in Joanna’s journal brought empathy rather than pity with those who were facing death and their caregivers. She demonstrated the richness that was left in the lives of these people even as their bodies began to fail.

The book brought a new fan for Jill McCorkle and another set of books to add to my stack – and this is just the stack I need to get to soon. I think I’ll add Tending to Virginia first since the name seems to resonate.

And should you decide to make friends with an avid reader, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the consequences.