Fictional Characters Can Take on Lives of Their Own

In the aftermath of January 6, 2021, today’s topic seems frivolous; however, life goes on and I’m trying to stay true to the purpose of my blog. I want to write about the reading and the writing of books. I don’t want to dwell on politics in my blog postings even though it dominates my thinking.

Happy Birthday, A.A. Milne!

Today is Alan Alexander Milne’s birthday, or to put it more accurately, this is the 139th anniversary of the birth of British author A.A. Milne. He was, of course, the creator of Winnie the Pooh. A stuffed bear Milne named Winnie the Pooh has entertained children and adults since the book by that name was published October 14, 1926.

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash.com

Did you know that Milne originally called Christopher Robin’s stuffed bear Edward? There’s an interesting World War I story there, if you want to look it up. There’s a connection with a black bear from Canada named “Winnie” for Winnipeg.

In addition to Winnie the Pooh, there are numerous other fictional characters that have taken on lives of their own. Here’s a short list: Superman, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Mother Goose, Little Orphan Annie, Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, Atticus Finch, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, Darth Vader, Hawkeye Pierce, Mary Poppins, Gandalf, The Joker, Forrest Gump, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Spider-Man, Bugs Bunny, James Bond, Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Snow White, The Hulk, The Grinch, Indiana Jones, Paul Bunyan, Spock, Archie Bunker, King Kong, Popeye, Charlie Brown, Big Bird, Yoda, Kermit the Frog, Shrek, Porky Pig, Lassie, and even the GEICO Geiko.

The list could go on and on. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some of the characters from the last decade or two that someone from a younger generation would readily name.

My point is that it takes great care and imagination to create a fictional character that will strike such a chord with the general audience that their name and/or image becomes an icon. As a writer, I can’t imagine creating such a character.

Did Harper Lee know in her gut that Atticus Finch would go down in history as the iconic wise father and lawyer that he was? I doubt it.

I’ve read that Mickey Mouse went through several revisions before Walt Disney settled on the iconic figure we think of today. Charles Schulz adjusted Charlie Brown’s features before developing the Charlie Brown we all know and love. No doubt, the same is true for many of the other characters listed above.

And which came first? The image or the character in words? I imagine there’s a combination of both in the above list.

Since my last blog post

On January 13, I started participating via Zoom in a discussion of Janet Given’s book, LEAPFROG: How to have a civil conversation during an uncivil era. Janet is a blogger friend of mine, and she invited me to join this group sponsored by the Lorain Historical Society in Ohio. The timing couldn’t be better. Too bad the entire American citizenry aren’t participating. In conjunction with this discussion on Zoom, I’m re-reading Ms. Givens’ book, one chapter per month. I invite you to read it, too. Until the group’s next Zoom meeting, I’m practicing listening.

Now that anyone 65 years old or older in the US is eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, I’ve been checking my county’s online scheduling tool numerous times every day. I haven’t been able to grab an appointment yet, but I’ll persevere. In the meantime, yesterday I was able to schedule my two doses in March through one of our local hospital systems.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read or write. I’m listening to The Fix, by David Baldacci.

Make time to care for yourself during these stressful times.

Wear a mask out of respect for others.

Let’s all practice listening to each other. Really listening.

Janet

Other Books Read in December 2020

I saved two books I read in December for today’s blog post, not wanting to make last week’s post too long. One is a new novel and the other was from my to-be-read (TBR) list. I continue to add more books to my TBR than I check off. That’s just the way it is. My TBR hovers around 300, give or take 10-20 books. I need to ignore the number. Stressing over it isn’t beneficial.

The following two books transported me to England and Mississippi in December without leaving the Covid-19-free safety of my home.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell

The first book I read by British author Lisa Jewell was The Family Upstairs in November 2019. I didn’t particularly enjoy listening to that book because one of the characters had a limited vocabulary. By that, I’m referring to the fact that the character used “the f-word” to such excess that I found it distracting. (Here’s the link to my blog post about the books I read in November 2019: Four Other Books I Read in November 2019.) Nevertheless, I decided to give Lisa Jewell another chance, so I listened to her new novel, And Then She Was Gone. I’m glad I did.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell

Then She Was Gone is a cleverly-developed psychological thriller. A little girl disappears shortly after her tutor is let go. The little girl’s mother never gives up hope of finding her daughter. Many years later she is introduced to a young girl. She is the spitting image of her missing daughter. I was hooked by this story early on, and I wanted to see it through to the end. The longer I listened to this book, the more I was eager to see what would happen next.

Having a female predator made this novel different from the norm. We just don’t expect a woman to fill that role in real life or in fiction. Did the tutor have something to do with the little girl’s disappearance? If so, why did she do it? There are some surprises in the end that made me wish I had time to reread the book from the beginning to look for bits of foreshadowing I possibly missed the first time.

The Appeal, by John Grisham

This novel by John Grisham has been on my TBR for years. I finally got around to reading it. Actually, I listened to it. Michael Beck does such a good job recording John Grisham’s books, I’ve come to prefer to listen to his novels instead of reading the printed word.

The Appeal deals with a number of trials and appeals. The main one is an appeal filed after a jury in Mississippi finds a chemical company guilty of causing a cluster of cancer cases. The owner of the company decides to “purchase” a seat on the Mississippi State Supreme Court.

This book shines a bright light on the problems that can be created by making judgeships elected positions. When a judge is put in the position of needing to raise money for his or her campaign, it opens the door for all kinds of corruption. Mr. Grisham usually has a point he wants to get across, and I believe that was the one that stood out in The Appeal.

There is also a moral dilemma revealed near the end of the book.

Since my last blog post

Since my last blog post, insurrectionists and domestic terrorists stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. I’m so angry and stunned that I’m still searching for words to attempt to describe how I feel. I’ve tried very hard the last four years not to make comments about politics in my blog posts; however, what happened last Wednesday, January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC was done at the direction and encouragement of Donald J. Trump, Sr., the sitting president of the United States of America.

It was a failed coup. There is no punishment for Trump and his enablers that is equal to their crimes.

The United States Capitol Photo credit: Ajay Parthasarathy on unsplash.com

I can almost forgive the people who voted for Trump in 2016. With time, maybe I’ll be able to completely forgive them. For the people who voted for him again in November 2020, you knew exactly what you were voting for and you got it on January 6. Unfortunately, we all got it on January 6—and we didn’t deserve it. As a Christian, I’m supposed to forgive you. Let’s just say I’m a work in progress. May God have mercy on my soul. May God have mercy on you.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read or a good one to write – or both.

Make time to do something you’re really passionate about. For me, that’s writing.

Wear a mask, and get the Covid-19 vaccination as soon as you’re eligible. That’s still a few weeks or months away for me.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post today.

Janet

Books Read in November 2020

As has become my routine, my first blog of the month is about the books I read the previous month. I read a couple of good books in November, so I’m eager to tell you what I thought about them. As sometimes happens, more than one book with difficult topics presented themselves at the same time. This was a month of unpleasant topics, but the writing was excellent.


And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane

You must read this book! It is historical fiction at its best.

And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane

The name of this historical novel might be a turn-off for some people but, if you are a true fan of historical fiction, you must read this book. If you desire to learn more about the American Civil War, you must read this book. Vicki Lane has done a masterful job of weaving the story of the war in the mountains of North Carolina through the voices of five point-of-view characters.

This is a story that the history books rarely mention. If it’s mentioned, it is glossed over and allotted one sentence. I remember reading references in history textbooks such as, “Brother turned against brother” and “Neighbor turned against neighbor.”

Those descriptions of what actually happened in places like Madison County, North Carolina, don’t hold a candle to the depth of hate and evil that took place there. And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane, puts flesh and bones, horror, heartache, and names on such mundane statements that you’ll find in history books.

Ms. Lane’s novel is based on a true story, and four of her five main characters were real people. It is not pleasant reading, but it is artfully written. The suspense slowly builds until unspeakable evil takes place. And the Crows Took Their Eyes is the perfect title for this tale of hate and revenge.

Oh, how I wish I could write historical fiction like Vicki Lane does!


A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham

I listened to this latest legal thriller by John Grisham. Michael Beck always does an outstanding job reading Mr. Grisham’s novels for the audio editions. He outdid himself on this one with the numerous accents. And Mr. Grisham outdid himself with some gut-wrenching courtroom testimony.

A Time for Mercy gets into some tough subjects. A boy kills his mother’s abusive boyfriend. To give more details here would be revealing too much, and I don’t want to spoil the book for you. It is a gripping story with many layers. I highly recommend it.


Since my last blog post

I finished writing a couple of historical short stories. I now have five stories completed and six others in various stages of planning and researching. Maybe I’ll get a collection of short stories published in 2021.

It has been refreshing to spend more time writing lately. I realized that I am happiest when I’m writing.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie.

I hope you have quality, imaginative, and satisfying creative time, no matter where your creative interests lie.

Wear your mask and try to stay well until we all get through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Janet

#OnThisDay: Chief Joseph’s Death, 1904

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought anything that happened in the 1800s was ancient history. It’s amazing how age has a way of putting things in perspective. As I was reading about Chief Joseph in preparation for writing today’s blog post, I was struck by the fact that the conflicts between the United States government and the Nez Perce Native Americans took place a mere 68-76 years before my birth.

Since I’m 67 years old, the number of years weren’t lost on me. It was only 49 years before my birth that Chief Joseph died on September 21, 1904. As I read various sources about Chief Joseph while researching today’s blog topic, in addition to putting the time frame in perspective, I was struck all over again with the fact that the United States government has always treated Native Americans horribly. Period.

Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt was popularly known as Chief Joseph. His tribal name translates into “Thunder Rolling in the Mountain” in English. He succeeded his father as a leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain band of Nez Perce Native Americans. The Wal-lam-wat-kain lived in the Wallowa Valley in present-day Oregon.

Chief Joseph sought peace and wanted all people to live in harmony. The United States government didn’t share his philosophy of life. He tried repeatedly to come to a peace agreement with the federal government.


Background history – Chief Joseph’s Father

White settlers began settling in the Wallowa Valley around 1850. Chief Joseph’s father was the tribal chief at the time. He was welcoming to the intruders at first, but as their numbers grew they encroached onto more and more of the valley. When Chief Joseph (the elder) told the settlers they could take no land, the settlers took it by force.

As tensions grew, Governor Isaac Stevens of the Washington Territory created a council to try to establish peace. Through that council, the Treaty of Walla Walla was signed in 1855 by Chief Joseph (the elder) and the chiefs of nearby tribes. The treaty created a 7-million acre reservation that included the Wallowa Valley.

The treaty worked fairly well until a gold rush drew more settlers into the reservation land in 1863. A second treaty was signed, but it heavily favored the white settlers. The original 7-million acre reservation was whittled down to only 700,000 acres. The icing on the cake was the removal of the Wallowa Valley from the new reservation boundaries and all the affected tribes were forced to move to Idaho.

Some of the Nez Perce tribes accepted the terms and moved; however, Chief Joseph (the elder) and some others refused to go. The second treaty was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Chief Joseph (the elder) denounced the United States, even throwing away his Bible and burning the American flag. (He had adopted the Christian faith after visits by missionaries and was baptized and given the Christian name “Joseph” in 1838.)

What the US government never understood was the value the Native Americans put on the graves of their ancestors.

“Inside this boundary, all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.” ~ Chief Joseph (the elder)

Before Chief Joseph (the elder) died in 1871, he said the following words to his son in preparation for his succeeding him as tribal chief: “Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”


The younger Joseph becomes Chief

More settlers arrived and tensions grew. Chief Joseph (the younger) was threatened with physical violence, but he always responded verbally. He held onto the hope that his people could stand their ground and outlast the white settlers. He knew if he retaliated with violence, the US government would wipe out his people. He couldn’t risk getting violent.

A third treaty was drawn up in 1873. It gave the Wallowa Valley back to Chief Joseph’s people. The treaty was broken four years later and US Army General Oliver Otis Howard set out to forcibly remove the Nez Perce from their lands. Chief Joseph (the younger) offered Gen. Howard a compromise. The Nez Perce would give up part of their land and some of them would leave.

When the two men were unable to come to an agreement, Howard gave the Nez Perce thirty days to vacate their lands. To not comply would be considered an act of war against the United States.


The Nez Perce War

Chief Joseph quietly moved his followers across nearly 1,200 miles, while other Nez Perce tribes chose to stay behind and fight. Chief Joseph’s people were able to avoid armed conflict with the US Army for the most part, but violence ran against the chief’s core values to the point that he couldn’t bear to see his people suffer any more. Even though Chief Joseph tried to avoid fighting the army, the conflict became known as the Nez Perce War because other tribes within the Nez Perce chose to fight.

On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Howard. The speech Chief Joseph made that day is remembered to this day and often quoted:

          “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” ~ Chief Joseph, October 5, 1877


The rest of the story

Chief Joseph and his followers were put on rail cars and taken to Oklahoma. Many died there from exposure to the elements and diseases they’d never been exposed to before. Getting nowhere talking to army generals, Chief Joseph went to Washington, DC and met with President Rutherford B. Hayes.

He pleaded his people’s case with the president, but there was not immediate resolution of the conflict. It was six years later that Chief Joseph and his followers were split up. Some were sent to a reservation near Kooskia, Idaho. Some were sent to northern Washington Territory. But Idaho and the reservation in northern Washington weren’t their homeland. Their homeland was the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon.

In 1897, Chief Joseph returned to Washington, DC to try again to get permission for his people to move to the Wallowa Valley. He never quit trying peacefully to get permission for his people to return to their homeland.

Chief Joseph died 116 years ago today on September 21, 1904. His physician said Chief Joseph died of a broken heart.

No one can argue with that.

If the United States government authorities had just adopted Chief Joseph’s philosophy of life, our country’s history would be quite different. A lot of conflict, bloodshed, and misunderstandings could have been avoided.


Since my last blog post

I was saddened by the death on Friday by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She will go down in history as one of the most-gifted legal minds to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’m formatting for self-publishing the 174 local history columns I wrote from 2006 through 2012 for Harrisburg Horizons newspaper. I hope to get the book published this year in electronic form and paperback.


Until my next blog post

Thank you for reading my blog. Everyone is busy, so I appreciate the time you took to read my post today.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Book of Lost Names, by Kristin Harmel.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have satisfying creative time this week.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, please wear a mask to protect the people around you. Even if you’re not displaying any symptoms of the virus, you could be carrying it and infecting others.

Janet

#OnThisDay: War in Mexico, 1847

Today’s blog post is a brief memory refresher about the Mexican-American War. The deciding battle of the war took place 173 years ago today in Mexico City.


Manifest Destiny

United States President James K. Polk’s belief in the “manifest destiny” of the US to reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific was at the root of the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. Specifically, there was a dispute between the two countries over where Texas ended and where Mexico began along the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers.

President Polk pushed the issue by sending troops into the disputed zones, which resulted in a skirmish between Mexican and American troops on April 25, 1846. The US Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846.

Village scene in Mexico
Photo credit: Freestocks via Unsplash.com

Santa Anna

Mexico’s General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was in exile in Cuba. (You, no doubt, remember him from the Battle of The Alamo in the 1836 Texas Revolution.) He convinced President Polk that he would end the war on terms the US would like if he could get back into Mexico. It was a trick. Upon returning to Mexico, Santa Anna took control of the Mexican army and led an attack. In March of 1847, he assumed the presidency of Mexico.


End of the Mexican-American War

General Winfield Scott led the American forces in a march from Veracruz to Mexico City. In September, 1847, US troops laid siege to Mexico City and captured the Chapultepec Castle.

Chapultepec Castle
Castillo de Chapultepec
Photo credit: Arpa Sarian on Unsplash.com

The war was essentially over once the US had taken control of Mexico City on September 14, but the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo wasn’t signed until February 2, 1848.

The treaty established the Rio Grande River as the boundary between the US and Mexico. Included in the treaty was Mexico selling California and the rest of its territory north of the Rio Grande (which was most of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada) to the US for $15 million!


“Halls of Montezuma”

Incidentally, the opening words of the hymn of the US Marine Corps, “From the halls of Montezuma” are believed to refer to the Chapultepec Castle, although the castle was actually built by the Spanish 200 years after the overthrow of Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

For purposes of my blog post today, I was unable to verify that the beautiful stained-glass windows pictured above were part of the castle in 1847. At the time of the battle, the castle housed the Military College for cadets.


Since my last blog post

I’ll try to get today’s blog post out on schedule, since it’s an #OnThisDay edition. Last Saturday when I clicked on the publish button to schedule my post for Monday morning, it “went live” immediately. That’s the second time that’s happened, and I’m sure it’s due to operator error.

I’m once again focusing on getting the 174 local history newspaper columns I wrote from May 2006 through 2012 published. I formatted 292 pages for self-publishing on CreateSpace. When Amazon absorbed CreateSpace in 2018, I put the project on the back burner. My interest in getting this work published was rekindled the other day. I’m reformatting it as a Word document and adding my research notes for the many newspaper columns I didn’t get to write because the newspaper suddenly ceased publication. I’ll keep you posted.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have fulfilling creative time this week.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, please be safe. Wear a mask out of respect for others.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to read my blog post today!

Janet

Books Read in August 2020

Reading in August was a bit of a challenge. Lots of things were going on within the family and I was distracted. Nevertheless, I did finish reading or listening to several books.

I think I shouldn’t push myself so much in the future. It’s gotten to the point that I feel guilty if I’m not reading! I want reading to be the pleasure it’s intended to be, so I’m adjusting my expectations. I reminded myself this isn’t a contest. The person who reads the most books doesn’t necessarily win.

With that introduction, let’s jump into the books I read or tried to read in August.

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Frazier Page

#WeWearTheMask
We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, by Brando Skyhorse & Lisa Page

This is an enlightening book. It has nothing to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s about a completely different kind of mask.

It’s 15 first-hand stories of the experience of “passing” in America as something one is not. To give you the overall flavor of the book, I’ll briefly give you the topic of each of the 15 stories:

A Mexican-American is forced by his mother to pass as an American Indian;

A Cuban Jewish lesbian tells how many of her fellow Cubans were surprised to be considered black (or “colored” in the vernacular of the early 1960s) when they arrived in the US;

A man’s half-Chinese great-grandfather changed his name twice in order to pass as white. It was more than 100 years before his descendants found out they had Chinese ancestors;

A black man was mistaken as a server at the National Book Awards banquet and realizes that one’s attire cannot counteract people’s prejudices and assumptions;

A brown woman started passing as a Puerto Rican at the age of seven when her family moved to Italian-dominant Staten Island, NY because the Italians were confused over her skin tone. She was called derogatory Asian names while her teachers made the assumption that she was Puerto Rican;

A man passed as white until he retired. Then, he moved back to his home community of darker relatives. He wasn’t totally accepted;

A white woman marries a black man and they have children; she moves to a nice retirement community in Mexico and keeps her bi-racial children a secret from her new friends… until those adult children come to her funeral; and

A transgender man passing as a woman and learning what it’s like to be an attractive woman and being hit on by creepy men and being subjected to everything from violence to unwanted catcalls to always having to be aware of one’s surroundings.

There are also stories of homosexuals passing as straight, poor people passing as wealthy, and even wealthy people passing as poor.

This is the kind of book you can pick up and read a small section of when you have a few minutes. I enjoyed reading just one story a day.


The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

The CIA and Dr. Zhavago
The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

This is a fascinating novel! It’s the story of how the United States set out in the 1950s to smuggle art, music, and literature into the Soviet Union and, specifically, how women typists in the CIA were instrumental in carrying out the mission.

President Eisenhower knew the US lagged behind the Soviet Union in the space and nuclear races. Here’s a quote from the novel that puts it in a nutshell: “They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then we believed books could be weapons, that literature could change the course of history.”

The US wanted to emphasize to the everyday Soviet citizens how their government censored and persecuted the Eastern-bloc’s finest artists. They started by sending up weather balloons that would burst behind the Iron Curtain, raining down pamphlets.

Then, they started mailing books into the Soviet Union. Then, at the suggestion of one of the female typists, they started gluing the covers of non-controversial books like Charlotte’s Web and Pride and Prejudice to the covers of banded books. The ultimate objective was to smuggle in copies of Dr. Zhivago, by Russian author Boris Pasternak.

Reading Dr. Zhavigo would open the everyday Soviet citizens’ eyes to what had happened between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War II. The book had been banned in all Eastern-bloc countries because it was considered subversive.

This is a story of espionage that will have you cheering, especially for the women who are the unsung heroes of the CIA.


The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

Book 2, follows My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

After reading My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante in July, I looked forward to this second book in a series of four novels by Ms. Ferrante. Maybe it was just my mindset or my being distracted by wanting to work on my own novel, but The Story of a New Name did not hold my attention. I listened to almost half of the book (which is more of a chance than I normally give a book I’m not really enjoying) before I sent it back to the library. I found the two friends, Lila and Elena, more interesting as children than as adults.

This book has received good reviews, so I think it just wasn’t the right time for me to try to read it.


The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

#MonarchButterfly
The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe

I’ve been intending to read a book by Mary Alice Monroe for years and finally got around to it. I listened to The Butterfly’s Daughter on Playaway while I walked every day. As I understand is true of Ms. Monroe’s novels, the reader could tell she did extensive research about the monarch butterfly before writing this book. Each chapter is prefaced with a sentence or two of monarch butterfly facts, and other information about the species is woven throughout the book.

I immediately liked the main character and I was really pulling for her on her cross-country trek through the US and into Mexico to her homeland of her grandmother where the monarchs overwinter. It was an engaging story. A bonus was that, at least on the Playaway edition I listened to, the author was the narrator.


Since my last blog post

Lightening fried our computer modem, which put a crimp in my style for several days. We’re getting into a routine for caring for our newly-diagnosed diabetic dog. 


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on in the US, please wear a mask out of respect for other people, even if you feel fine. Several of my cousins have been battling the virus for weeks already.

Covid-19 is real, in spite of what the current resident of the White House says.

Janet

Two Other Books I Read in July 2020

Today’s blog is about two very different novels I read last month. In case you missed last week’s blog post about the other three books I read in July, here’s the link to that post: Three of the Five Books I Read in July 2020.

I like historical fiction because it lets me escape to another place and time. One of today’s books transported me to Washington, DC and the Midwest in the second half of the 19th century, while the other novel took me to Naples, Italy in the 1950s.


Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters, by Jennifer Chiaverini

I knew that Mary Todd (Mrs. Abraham) Lincoln had some mental illness problems, but this novel shines a light on her illness and how it affected her only surviving son and her four sisters. It demonstrates how family members can become estranged when there is mental illness in their midst and how siblings and children (even adult children) can be shut out and left feeling helpless to get the sick relative the help they need. It was true in the 19th century. Sadly, it is still true.

The Todd sisters had always been close and relied upon one another even as adults. The American Civil War caused rifts in their relationships, as one or more of their husbands were part of the Lincoln Administration while the husband of another sister was in the Confederacy.

Mrs. Lincoln attempted suicide in 1875. Her sisters try to let bygones be bygones, even though she has slighted each of them on occasion. After spending time in an asylum, Mrs. Lincoln is determined to never return. She was a very resourceful woman. She would walk out of one facility she was in, hail a taxi, and go to pharmacies to try to get drugs.

She had a volatile relationship with her son, and her mental illness was demonstrated in the way she gave and withheld things from him.

It is the second novel I’ve read by Jennifer Chiaverini, the first being Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.


My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

I heard that The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, was good, so I got on the waitlist for it at the library. Then, I discovered it was the second book in her Neapolitan Series, so I got on the waitlist for the first book, My Brilliant Friend. It took a bit of juggling and pausing my hold on The Story of a New Name so I could read My Brilliant Friend first.

My Brilliant Friend is beautifully translated from Italian into English by Ann Goldstein. The prose is lovely.

My Brilliant Friend has been made into a TV series on HBO, but I have not seen it. The book follows two young girlfriends (Lila and the narrator, Elena) from their meeting at the age of 10 through their adolescent years. Elena sees Lila as more intelligent than herself. This prompts Elena to try to do everything Lila does to the extent of “copying” how she does everything. It is a complex story of women’s friendships and power. Lila and Elena’s lives reflect life in Naples, Italy in the 1950s.

There are four books in Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series of novels.


Since my last blog post

Yesterday morning at 8:07 a.m. EDT, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred near Sparta, North Carolina and was felt here. I live about 100 miles from Sparta. I was sound asleep at the time and the shaking of my bed woke me up.  We don’t have a lot of earthquakes of that magnitude in North Carolina. In fact, this was the strongest one in the state since a 5.2 near Asheville in 1916.

A good thing that has resulted from the changes we’ve all had to make in our lifestyles due to the pandemic is the new opportunities people like me have to watch and listen to authors on Facebook Live and Zoom. A special weekly thing I’ve become addicted to at 7pm Eastern Time on Wednesdays is a conversation among five novelists. Look online (friendsandfiction.com) for “Friends and Fiction.”

Authors Mary Alice Monroe, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry meet virtually every Wednesday evening to discuss reading and writing. Most weeks they have a guest author join them. From the website you can click on “Podcasts” and watch several of their earlier programs. It’s a great way to forget about the pandemic for an hour.

I’m still working my way through C.S. Lakin’s book and accompanying workbook that share the title, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction as I continue to polish my historical fiction manuscript tentatively titled The Doubloon or The Spanish Coin.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’ve never tried listening to an audio book, I suggest you give that a try. I’ve surprised myself this year and found downloadable audio books to be my format of choice. You don’t have to worry about getting Covid-19 germs from another library patron.

If you are a writer or other type of artist, I hope you get to immerse yourself in your craft this week.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask out of respect for other people. We’re all in this together.

Janet

Three of the Five Books I Read in July 2020

July was a trying month for many of us, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to infect and kill more and more people in the United States. Some of you reading this can breathe a sigh of relief because the worst of the first wave of the pandemic is over where you are.

With all the distractions in July, I found it difficult to concentrate enough to read much. Although I finished reading five novels, I started reading several other books and just couldn’t get into them. At least that got them off my To Be Read List. In today’s blog post, I’ll talk about three of the five books I read last month.

One of the books featured today was written by a prolific author, John Grisham. I’ve read 21 of his books. The other two are debut novels by Amy Jo Burns and Lauren Wilkinson.

Camino Winds, by John Grisham

Sequeal to Camino Island
Camino Winds, by John Grisham

I started July by reading John Grisham’s much-anticipated sequel to Camino Island (See You Must Read (Some of) These Books!.) Camino Winds did not disappoint. It continues with the same characters as Camino Island. We’re on an island in Florida with Bruce Cable, the man who owns and operates the little independent bookstore in the village. Mr. Cable has an interesting group of friends. Many of the people in this resort community are mystery writers.

There is a hurricane and a murder, and it takes the bookstore owner and all his friends to try to figure out who killed their friend. The guy who gets murdered is a lawyer, so there are any number of suspects.

Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns

Debut novel by Amy Jo Burns
Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns

To say fifteen-year-old Wren Bird lives in isolation would be a gross understatement. Her father is a self-proclaimed preacher who keeps boxes of poisonous snakes in the shed for the purpose of handling them in church. Wren’s mother does the best she can, but she lives under her husband’s thumb. They live miles from anyone else in West Virginia. They have no mailbox because Wren’s father doesn’t want them exposed to anything from the outside world.

This debut novel by Amy Jo Burns was recommended by one of the authors on Friends and Fiction on Facebook Live. Otherwise, I might not have heard of it. If I’d known in advance there would be so many references to snakes, I probably wouldn’t have given it a chance. It took me a while to get past the snakes, but the book was so compelling I kept reading.

There are a few other characters besides the Bird family. Wren is a determined young woman and she is not going to let that mountain, it’s snake handlers, or moonshiners (thus, the name, Shiner) keep her down. You will love Wren and want to read the entire book to see what unfolds.

I highly recommend this one!

American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy is Lauren Wilkinson’s debut novel. (No wonder my TBR list keeps growing!) I listened to this book. It is written in the form of a letter an American spy, who just happens to be a black woman, writes to her children to explain how and why the major events in her life and theirs came about.

I was intrigued by the novel being written in the form of one long letter. Especially since I was listening to the book, it felt like the author had written the letter to me – or was telling me her story. Somewhere along the way, I started forgetting that it was a letter, but I would remember for a short while before going back to feeling like someone was telling me a story.

American Spy was published early in 2019 and has received excellent ratings and rave reviews. It’s different from any other spy novel I’ve read.

Since my last blog post

I’m embarrassed to say that I did not work on my novel for 15 months. I’ve read books about writing and blogs about writing, but it’s been 15 months since I make changes in the manuscript. I was shocked when I figured this out! By concentrating on reading and studying books about the art and craft of writing fiction, I have neglected by fiction writing. Three weeks ago, I finally got back into the book and I’ve had a wonderful time getting reacquainted with all my characters.

I love to read, and I have a huge list of books I want to read; however, it is time for me to stop hiding behind my reading list and get back to doing the nitty-gritty work of polishing scenes and making my characters more memorable. If I miss posting on my blog one week, it will be because I’m either writing fiction or I’m sick. Assume it’s because I’m writing and didn’t get a blog post written.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have one or more good books to read. I’m listening to The Butterfly’s Daughter, by Mary Alice Monroe on Playaway while I take my daily walks. I’m reading We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Frazier Page, but it’s fine print and is going slowly although extremely interesting and eye-opening. I’m reading The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott on my Kindle.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you make time to hone and practice your craft.

Please wear a mask to protect those around you from the virus. Stay safe. Stay well. We’re all in this together.

Janet

Remembering a friend, Beth Hough Koestal

Yesterday I did something that was very difficult. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided not to attend a memorial service for an old friend. She died in Waterloo, Belgium on February 26. Due to the pandemic, her memorial service at her home church, Bethel United Methodist in Midland, North Carolina, had to be postponed until yesterday.

Teresa Beth Hough Koestal, Artist and Friend

I got to know Beth in the ninth grade. She stood out in the crowd even at that age in our class of around 200 students. She was artistic and funny. She was unassuming and gracious. She was beautiful inside and out.

Her leadership qualities were rewarded our senior year when she was elected class president. A group of us girlfriends rode together to a concert at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte one night. The main attraction for us was teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman. I’m not certain, but I believe Beth was our driver. That was about as wild and crazy as we got back in the day.

Beth’s artistic ability blossomed and, by our senior year, we knew we were in the presence of a true artist. After college, Beth eventually moved to New York City, where she met her husband, Jaap Koestal. Jaap was from The Netherlands. They moved to Amsterdam and Beth starting making a name for herself in the European art world.  

They later moved to Belgium, where she continued to hone her craft. She was commissioned to paint many paintings and portraits. A highlight in her career was when she was commissioned to paint more than eighty plein air paintings commemorating the bicentenary anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015.

She even created a series of coloring books about the Battle of Waterloo to entice children to learn about history and appreciate art. She sent me several sketches from her coloring books while they were in the planning stages for me and my sister to give her feedback. Like I was qualified to do that!

In recent years, Beth and I communicated occasionally via Facebook and Facebook private messages. She knew that now in our sixties, I was an aspiring novelist. She sent words of encouragement along my journey. My novel isn’t published yet. I had looked forward to the day I could send her a copy with my thanks and admiration.

She was one of those people who found the most interesting and varied things to share on Facebook – whether it be art, archeology, architecture, nature, or science. She loved to learn new things and was interested in everything.

To learn more about Beth’s work, visit https://teresabethhough.com/.

During this pandemic, it wasn’t an easy decision not to attend Beth’s memorial service. I have not attended several funerals in the last several months, including one for one of my first cousins. A part of me just can’t believe Beth is gone. I thought going to her memorial service would make her death more real for me, but I was afraid to go and risk catching the coronavirus.

This is life during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Until my next blog post

Stay safe. Stay well. Wear a mask out of respect for others.

Janet

Books Read in May 2020

To have had 31 days, the month of May passed leaving me feeling like I didn’t read very much. Actually, I read a lot. There were several books I started but didn’t finish. That’s what left me feeling as if I didn’t read much. There are always more books to be read than I have time to read. What a fortunate situation!

The books I chose to read in May were all over the place. Three of them turned out not to be what I expected, which is always disappointing.

A Conspiracy of Bones, by Kathy Reichs

This is Kathy Reichs’ latest novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties in North Carolina and Lake Wylie, South Carolina, the book features Reichs’ well-known protagonist, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A Conspiracy of Bones, by Kathy Reichs

Temperance is at odds with the new Mecklenburg County medical examiner. Against the medical examiner’s wishes and orders, Temperance pursues the case of a body found in Lincoln County. There are gory details about the state of the body, but the story line concentrates on who killed the man and why.

In the process of solving the crime, Temperance faces bodily harm and attempts on her life. She has a knack for going where she shouldn’t go and getting into all sorts of situations. Fairly early on, Temperance suspects the larger case involves child pornography. Is she correct, or is this a red herring Ms. Reichs included just to throw us off track?

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

After listening to this book for three hours and having 21 more hours remaining – and reading a synopsis of it – I decided I couldn’t concentrate long enough to listen to the rest of it. The synopsis revealed a plot that sounded better suited for a series of books. I just couldn’t finish it.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

The prose was vivid, explicit, beautiful, and at times humorous. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was just another book I couldn’t concentrate enough to see it through.

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain

After Cutting for Stone, this book was a delight. It is the eighth book I’ve read by Diane Chamberlain. I’m tempted to say it’s my favorite of the eight, but that might just be because I just finished it.

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain

Set in Edenton, North Carolina in 1940 and 2018, it is a story of racial discrimination, rape, child neglect, trust, jealousy, revenge, and love.

Ms. Chamberlain weaves an intriguing tale of a woman coming from “up North” to paint a large mural on the wall of the post office in Edenton. There is backlash because a local male artist had applied for the job. When a local black high school student is invited by the artist to assist her in the project, tongues in the small town wagged.

Decades later, an artist who is serving a prison term for a crime her boyfriend committed is chosen to get early parole if she will restore the mural. This leads to the discovery of several bizarre aspects of the mural. The restoring artist sets out to find out what became of the original artist and why she included the strange items and images in the mural. Add to this the suspense of an almost impossible deadline for the restoration and opening of an art museum, and you have the ingredients for a beautifully written mystery.

Writing Vivid Plots:  Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer’s Craft Book 20), by Rayne Hall

This book probably won’t interest you unless you are learning the craft of fiction writing. If you are a student of fiction writing, though, I recommend the book.

Writing Vivid Plots helped me in two specific ways. It explained the important differences in plotting a serial and a series. It also had a short chapter about the difference in plotting a novel and plotting a short story.

By the way, a serial is a story broken into different installments that should be read in order. A series is a group of books having the same characters but which usually stand on their own and can be read in any order.

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore

As often happens lately, I can’t remember what prompted me to get on the waitlist for this book at the public library. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. How it had been described to me must have left something out. A true representation of the book wouldn’t have led me to want to read it.

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore

This is Liz Moore’s fourth novel and the first of hers I’ve read. The book is well-written. In fact, listening to it held my attention. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way the book left me feeling hopeless against the drug abuse problem in our world.

Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philadelphia police officer. She tires of all the murders in her district. It seems that most of prostitutes. Every time another murder call comes in, she holds her breath for fear that this time it was her sister, Kacey. Their childhoods weren’t happy. There was little love in the family. The two sisters, once so very close, went their separate ways.

The overriding story is that of family drama, but it’s all wrapped up in the opioid crisis. I never lost interest in the book, as I wanted to know what happened to Kacey. Also, there was Mickey’s son, Thomas. Or was he her son? In the end there was some hope that Kacey would stay clean and never start using drugs again, but it left me with scant hope.

This novel left me rather depressed about the outlook for Kacey, Mickey, and the two children they had between them in the end. In that respect, the book is probably a true reflection of family life when a member is addicted to drugs. It’s also a true reflection of how every member of a family is affected when one member is abusing drugs – and what an empty feeling is left when that person dies as a result of their addiction.

I’m glad I listened to the book. After I finished listening to it, I read a review in which the writer talked about how confusing it was to try to read a book with no quotation marks. Ditto that for me. I wouldn’t have stuck with a physical copy of the book.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Having read State of Wonder, The Dutch House, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I looked forward to reading Commonwealth, her novel published in 2016. Commonwealth never drew me in. I was listening to it, which I think probably made it more difficult for me to keep all the characters straight.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I couldn’t identify with any of the characters, so I never felt invested in the story. It started in California at a christening party where every one got drunk. This is not my life experience, so right off the bat I couldn’t identify with these people. Then, it jumped 50 years later with all the same family members, including a raft of cousins.

The book just didn’t appeal to me. I listened to it for three and a half hours but wasn’t motivated to listen to another seven hours.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

It amazes me how time passes. If someone had asked me when I started reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See, but had to return it to the public library before I got even halfway through it, I would have guessed, “Sometime last year.” The joke is on me, though, for when I looked back through my blog posts to see if I referenced reading part of this book, I was stunned to find that it was exactly three years ago! In my blog post on June 2, 2017, I commented that the book had fascinated me “in how it shed light on some of the superstitions held by the Chinese.” Here’s the link to that post: https://janetswritingblog.com/2017/06/02/you-need-to-read-these-books/.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

I also wrote in that blog post: “The novel follows a young Chinese girl who is painfully aware from birth that she is not valued because she is female. Her family has to walk for hours to pick tea leaves for a meager amount of income. It is a difficult life. Her mother is the local midwife and she tells her daughter that she must follow in her footsteps in that occupation. There is a ray of hope, though, because her school teacher tells her that she can leave the harsh mountain environment and make something of herself. I look forward to checking the book out again in order to see how her life turns out!”

Three years later, I checked out the MP3 edition of the book and listened to it on my tablet. There is so much more to the book than my first impressions. I can’t believe it took me three years to return to it. Although the early part of the book was familiar to me, I listened to it from start to finish.

This is a rich story that follows Li-Yan throughout her life. She is intellectually gifted, but life places many stumbling blocks in her path. She falls in love and has a child – a girl. Having a child out of wedlock in China in 1995 was taboo, and out of shame Li-Yan puts her baby in a cardboard box along with a tea cake and leaves the box near an orphanage.

Li-Yan’s life continues to be full of strife, but she never stops loving her baby and wondering where she is and what her life is like. Learning that she was adopted by an American couple and raised in the United States, she could only hope she had a good life.

The novel also follows the life of Li-Yan’s baby, now named Haley. Through an interesting turn of events, Haley becomes interested in tea, which leads her back to her homeland.

My description of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is woefully inadequate. The novel is described on Lisa See’s website, http://www.lisasee.com/books-new/the-tea-girl-of-hummingbird-lane/, as “A powerful story about two women separated by circumstance, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and a celebration of the bonds of family.”

Since my last blog post

Civil unrest has erupted in cities all over the United States in response to last Monday’s death of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer who used excessive force against Mr. Floyd which resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death. I am sad, and I am angry. I believe that most law enforcement officers are good people, but there is a growing problem in America of white police officers using excessive force against people of dark skin. It is indicative of a deep-seated racial prejudice.

The events of this past week and conversations I’ve had with other bloggers and friends on Facebook have been eye-opening. I know that some of my Facebook friends – many of whom I have known since first grade – are prejudiced. They have shown their true colors since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and it has surprised and saddened me to learn these things about the people I thought I knew. I have come to realize that the America that I was taught as a young student to see as “a melting pot” is not a melting pot at all. It never was. It is a myth that has been perpetuated for more than 200 years.

America is at a crossroads. We each have a choice to make. Are we going to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we are fine and everyone around us is fine? Or are we going to stand up for the abused? When we see injustice, are we going to turn our heads and keep silent? If so, nothing will ever change. Until those of us with lighter skin recognize that we have benefited and profited from our white privilege, nothing will change. Until we speak up against injustice, nothing will change.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you are a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post today.

Stay safe. Stay well. Wear a face mask as a show of respect for others.

Let’s continue the conversation OR Our call to action

Examine your life, as I will continue to examine mine. Ask yourself if you truly see others as your equal. Examine your beliefs and look for the myths among them. After taking an honest inventory of your “philosophy of life,” take action. Register to vote. Write letters to your elected officials – local, state, and national – and tell them where you stand. Tell them the changes you want to see. Tell them what bothers you about the status quo. Perhaps more importantly, even during this Covid-19 pandemic, reach out to people who don’t look like you. Find common ground from which you can begin an honest conversation.

If you want some tips about how to have that difficult conversation, I recommend LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens. I wrote about this book in my blog post on April 13, 2020, https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/04/13/leapfrog-and-the-immoral-majority/.

LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

Janet