Salt Houses

In Palestine, Salma reads her daughter’s coffee dregs on the eve of her wedding, but only tells Alia part of what she foresees. The rest she will find out soon enough. Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s debut novel, covers three family generations.

The first uprooting and loss comes with the Six Day War of 1967. The book follows the family through a series of relatively peaceful times intercepted by war for the next fifty years. Bit by bit and war by war, the family scatters to Kuwait City, Beirut, Paris, and Boston with different levels and approaches to how much they assimilate into their new cultures and how much they hold onto the old values and traditions.  

She describes the war times – electricity cutting out every few hours, adults forbidding children to leave the house or even to go out on the balcony, men yelling at the television when it was on and shaking their heads, news reports with streaks of smoke from the airport, and planes dropping bombs “like eggs from their abdomens.”

In between, life resembles a normal pull and tug as children grow up wanting to stretch their wings and throw off old restrictions, as parents worry and disagree on how to handle the young ones, and as grandmother recalls the old ways or helps the young ones circumvent the rules. Normality lasts only until the next conflict.

The theme of the book is in a paragraph near the end. “What they say never changes. There is a war Alia knows. She understands this intuitively; in fact, it seems to her the only truth she holds immutable. There is a war. It is being fought and people are losing, though she is uncertain who exactly.”

Salt Houses sheds light on a question I’ve often asked when I’ve seen those reports of wars that seem interminable, “How do people live in that kind of atmosphere?” and puts a human face on what seems far away and can be forgotten once the newscast goes off.



Laryngitis, about the only thing with the power, has rendered me speechless. Like many other things, it has also brought memories of one of Daddy’s favorite jokes.

A customer comes into the ice cream shop and requests a cone of ice cream. The girl behind the counter rasps, “What would you like? We have chocolate, vanilla, and Karo pecan.”

The customer asks, “Do you have laryngitis?”

“No,” the girl answers, “Just chocolate, vanilla, and Karo pecan.”

We heard the joke every time we got laryngitis growing up. I heard it the most often since I end every illness with a round. In fact, Daddy used to say if I broke my toe, the last part of the healing would be a case of laryngitis. But he didn’t just save the gag for us.

Once he was traveling back with a friend to the seminary when he was recovering from a bout of his own. The friend sympathized with his losing his voice, which was equally as painful to him as it is to me, and Daddy told him the yarn.

His friend remarked that Daddy made jokes about everything and he fully expected him to rise up and tell a few at his own funeral.* The friend finished with the proverb, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

Daddy retorted, “Are you calling me a pill?”

*Daddy didn’t rise up and tell jokes at his funeral, but those who came to the visitation brought their favorites from his collection to share.


The Artist's Sketch

Should you have a need for a coffee table book with a fascinating story and beautiful paintings, I have a recommendation. The Artist’s Sketch by Carolyn Brown sheds light on an artist who was known in an entirely different way in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where I graduated from high school. Teenagers whispered about “the cat lady” as they passed the overgrown yard of Kate Freeman Clark. Neither kids nor adults at that time had any idea of the treasure she had created that was stored in New York until her death.

Carolyn’s research uncovered a child of privilege in a small Southern town. Her lawyer father, elected to the Senate while they were living in Vicksburg, traveled to Washington but turned ill and died before Kate and her mother could join him. Mother and daughter returned home to Holly Springs and for the next eight years lived with her grandmother, Mama Kate, for whom she was named and who took her in hand to produce a genteel young woman. 

Moving to New York with her mother, Kate began a life in art, studying the plein air technique and shining as one of its finest practitioners. They spent time in the New York and its surroundings and in DC and were eventually joined by Mama Kate. She seldom did official shows since her mother thought that was unseemly for a young woman, and signed her paintings “Freeman Clark,” perhaps for the same reason. She did enjoy her companions and mentors in the art community and a bit of romance.

First her grandmother and then her mother took ill, and after their deaths, she moved back to Holly Springs where she lived for the last quarter century of her life. She gave a few art talks and participated in the life of the ante-bellum Southern town before becoming the reclusive “cat lady” with the overrun yard.

Only after her death and the reading of her will did local people learn of her immense talent. Her paintings, warehoused in New York, were left to the city of Holly Springs. In addition to her fascinating story, the book contains a wealth of photographs of her art. And if you’re like me, it will inspire a desire to return to Holly Springs to see them in person in the Kate Freeman Clark Art Gallery.


Gotta Call It Something

As Al marks another anniversary of his birth on the day of my blog, it seemed only right to do honor to who he is.

I’ve been searching for the right description. I’ve seen many people classify their spouse or significant other as their “best friend.” Well, that seems a bit warm and fuzzy for a loveable curmudgeon.  While it’s true that I confide in Al and tell him stuff I wouldn’t tell anybody else, “best friend” seems a little off.

Then there’s “soulmate” which kind of insinuates way more agreement than we’ve been able to achieve. That proverbial glass that he sees half-empty always looks half-full to me. Not to mention our method of leaving a gathering to come home when he can be out the door and have the car cranked within thirty seconds, and I’m prone to linger and chat until everybody goes home. And when we ride together to the voting precinct, he turns right while I turn left.

So does this relationship leave me in bad shape? Hardly. Even before he heard the Army slogan, he applied the “Be all you can be” to me. As a very poor typist before the days of computers, I had two years left on an English degree when we married. I worked ahead, handwriting all my papers, and left them with him for typing while I commuted to Ole Miss. He typed in breaks (72 words a minute with no mistakes on a manual typewriter) while he ran the family country store, kept my gas tank filled, and paid my tuition. Mama said my degree should have read “Mr. and Mrs.”

Several years later when I decided to take enough classes to get certification to teach kindergarten and elementary school, he insisted that I reach a bit farther and get my Master’s in Early Childhood Education. The day that diploma came, after I had to take my comprehensive in Germany and have it mailed, he asked, “So when do you start your doctorate?” I assured him I was through filling in squares. He still chides me about that decision since I’ve taken enough additional hours to have completed one.

A major requirement when we bought our house in Hattiesburg was a big kitchen since we both cook. He has a system for that, too. If I cook, he cleans up. If he cooks, he cleans up. It works for me.

And there’s my writing. Always my first reader, he apologizes if he finds anything wrong or unclear. (I’m thinking, “Like why did I give it to you to read if I didn’t want you to spot a problem?”) He is sure the only reason I ever get a rejection letter is because they didn’t read the submission. He usually proofs my blogs, too, but in case there’s a mistake, I didn’t let him see this one ahead.

So what label do I give him today on his birthday? Beats me. I had given up on finding him a label when I overheard some words of wisdom as we passed Chick-fil-a on our daily walk in the mall.  Devon Dollar said, “Sometimes things just work out the way they should.”

Happy birthday to the guy who’s helped make most of my life work out the way it should.



The Radium Girls

Be forewarned. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is both repulsive and compelling – like a scab not quite ready to come off. Once started, the reader is drawn back again and again to read what she’d rather not know. The publisher fittingly describes it as “The dark story of America’s Shining Women.” Unfortunately, it is nonfiction.

Set during the time of World War I, young women get a dream job of painting numbers on clock faces with radium to make them glow in the dark, first for the military and later for public use. As early as 1901, scientists knew the dangers inherent in radium. This account begins in 1917 when those dangers were being ignored and denied. To make their brushes produce exact tiny lines, the “Radium Girls” dipped the brushes into their mouths to make the points sharper. Bits and pieces of the substance fell onto their clothes or parts of their body, making them glow eerily and beautifully in the dark. For a time, the ingredient enhanced the girls’ beauty for party going as they sometimes added extra touches of leftovers here and there. All was well until, one by one they began to get sick.

The radium attacked their bones and teeth. The company denied all charges that radium was the cause. Intrigue, lawsuits, and lies filled the days as the young women sought justice. In a saga that stretched to 1938 with one step forward followed by two steps backward, the Radium Girls pursued the truth. The impact of their battle reaches forward into safety procedures that protect our world today.

I highly recommend this book and think I see the prospects of a movie inherent in its story.