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

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

Today marks the 185th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Longhorn Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain.

Mark Twain has been a favorite author of mine since my first introduction to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in elementary school. I loved the humor. I loved the honesty. I loved the way he wrote like people talked. Decades later, those are still the things I love about his writing. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another favorite novel of his.

A selection of Mark Twain books

Years ago, I enjoyed how actor Hal Holbrook brought Mark Twain alive on the stage and TV. When vacationing in New York a few years ago, I enjoyed visiting Elmira, where Twain lived. There was a live portrayal of him there, which was excellent. I still have those memories and the plastic souvenir cup from my visit.

Perhaps even more than his novels, I like many of Mark Twain’s quotes. It was through his little snippets or sayings that his humor really came through. Here are a few of my favorites:

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who can’t read.”

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

“When your friends begin to flatter you on how young you look, it’s a sure sign you’re getting old.”

Since my last blog post

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened here in the United States. I’m thankful for all the people who work in healthcare facilities and other essential workers who risk exposure to the virus every day so the rest of us can have the services we need. I’m fortunate that I can stay home most of the time.

I finished reading a splendid new historical novel by Vicki Lane. Get your hands on a copy of And the Crows Took Their Eyes. Don’t let the title scare you off, but be aware that the book is not about a pleasant subject. It is, however, masterfully written. It sheds light on a part of North Carolina history that has received too little attention in the history books. It brings to life the horrors of neighbors taking opposite sides in the American Civil War. I read it slowly and savored the writing. Look for more about this book in my blog post on December 7, 2020.

My sister and I had some productive time one day as we continued to proofread my manuscript for Harrisburg, Did You Know? Stay tuned for progress reports.

My root canal went well last Monday, and I was able to enjoy turkey, dressing, and gravy on Thanksgiving Day.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read and a challenging one to write, if you’re a writer.

Be creative. Find what you’re passionate about and make time to do it. Find a way to make a living doing it. I wish I had.

Wear a mask.

Janet

In Search of Grandma’s Chow-Chow

When I Googled “images of chow-chow,” I only found photos of chow dogs and pandas. (I’m not sure why a few panda pictures were scattered among those of dog, but that’s what I got.)  I wasn’t looking for dog pictures. I’m not talking about grandma’s lost dog. I’m talking about a condiment made up of green tomatoes, cabbage, onions, bell peppers, spices, and vinegar.

I finally found some pictures of chow-chow but, not wanting to risk breaking copyright laws, I chose not to include one in today’s post. Pictures are an important aspect of blogging, so I try to include at least one in each post.

But I digress.

Story’s inspiration

When fall came, my mother started looking for homemade chow-chow to buy. She liked to eat it along with turnip and mustard greens and black-eyed peas. That memory of my mother inspired me to write the following short story. Since it’s fewer than 1,000 words, it qualifies as flash fiction – which is something I didn’t think I was capable of writing!

The following story is pure fiction. I never knew either of my grandmothers. All names are fictitious. It’s all a bit of surprise to me. I never dreamed I’d write a story about chow-chow!

A Short Story/Flash Fiction:  “In Search of Grandma’s Chow-Chow”

Millie walked up and down the rows of tents at the farmers’ market. Her eyes quickly scanned each stall for canned homemade chow-chow. A stroke had left her mother unable to speak or write. The chow-chow recipe, which had been Millie’s grandmother’s, was trapped in her mother’s head, unable to get out.

She thought if she could find someone else’s chow-chow that tasted like her mother’s, maybe she could get the recipe. Nothing would please her more than to duplicate the special condiment that her mother liked so much.

Millie visited every farmer’s market, country store, and produce stand she found. She’d bought enough chow-chow and pickle relish in the last five years to sink a ship. Every time she came home with another jar of chow-chow, her mother’s eyes danced in anticipation.

“Maybe this will be the one, Mama,” Millie said one day as she held up the jar of chow-chow she’d bought that afternoon. Her mother smiled a lopsided smile and nodded in silence.

The next day Millie cooked pinto beans and cornbread. The latest jar of chow-chow was given a place of honor in the center of the table.

“Oh no. Not more chow-chow!” 14-year-old Darrell said. “I don’t think I can face it anymore.”

“You don’t have to eat it,” Millie said. “Just humor me and your grandmother, okay?”

Millie spooned a big helping of beans on her mother’s plate with a wedge of cornbread on the side. Then, with great fanfare, she topped the beans with a spoonful of chow-chow and put the plate in front of her mother. Millie waited expectantly, almost praying this would be “the one.”

Yet again, her mother struggled to get a spoonful of beans and chow-chow to her crooked mouth. After a few seconds of deliberate chewing, and with all eyes on her, she shook her head.

Millie slumped in her chair and let out an audible sigh. “I never thought it would be so hard to find chow-chow like Mama used to make.”

“Don’t give up,” Millie’s husband, John, said. “Maybe the next jar will be the charm.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Millie said. “I can’t give up now. Let’s drive to the mountains this Sunday to see the fall leaves. I bet I’ll find lots of good chow-chow up there.”

“It’s worth a try,” John said. “The trip might do us all good.”

The next Sunday, Millie packed a picnic lunch. The family went to the early worship service at their church before heading for the Blue Ridge Mountains. They stopped at every country store and produce stand by the side of the road. Millie left each one armed with at least one jar of chow-chow and a carefully written note giving the name and address of the person who made it.

At the last place they stopped, the shop keeper handed her a pre-printed piece of paper. “Here’s the name of the lady who made it,” he said. She folded it up without reading it and put it in the bag with the chow-chow.

The next morning, Millie lined up the new jars of chow-chow on the kitchen counter. She studied each one. She selected the jar she would open that night. When the family gathered for supper, all eyes fell on Millie’s mother. Darrell suggested that his father include in the evening’s blessing a plea asking God to let this be the last jar of chow-chow his mother would have to buy.

“God has better things to do with his time than worry about chow-chow,” John said. Darrell couldn’t help but wonder if his father secretly prayed for God to make this jar be “the one.”

Millie put a plate of greens and black-eyed peas in front of her mother and smiled. Her mother tasted the beans and chow-chow. A broad smile filled her face and she gave a slow but deliberate nod of her head.

“Eureka!” Millie shouted. She jumped up and gave her mother a big hug. Then she rushed to the kitchen counter and unfolded the note that accompanied that jar of chow-chow.

“Drum roll!” Darrell said.

“And the winner is . . .” John said.

“Marjorie Holbrooks of Shady Creek!” Millie said.

After supper, Millie took her cell phone out of her pocket and called the number on the piece of paper. “Mrs. Holbrooks?” Millie asked when a woman answered the phone. “You don’t know me, but I bought a jar of your chow-chow yesterday. It tastes just like what my mother and grandmother used to make. I wondered if you could give me the recipe.”

Mrs. Holbrooks told Millie that it was an old family recipe but she’d be happy to e-mail it to her.  Millie told Mrs. Holbrooks that it seemed like more than a coincidence that her chow-chow tasted just like the one that had been passed down in her family, too. They each named their mothers’ maiden names and grandmothers’ names only to discover a connection.

When Millie got off the phone she couldn’t wait to tell her mother about the conversation. “Guess what! Marjorie Holbrooks is the granddaughter of your Grandma Bradley’s cousin Rachel. She’s sending me the recipe tonight. It’s been passed down in her branch of the family, too.”

Millie’s mother smiled and a tear rolled down her cheek. She mouthed the words, “Small world. Thank you.”

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I finished reading The Last Ballad, by Wiley Cash last night and started reading The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain. I’m listening to A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles as I can find the time. Too bad I can’t read one book and listen to another one at the same time!

The Rocky River Readers Book Club will discuss Signs in the Blood, by Vicki Lane tonight. I read it a few years ago and immediately became a fan of this North Carolina writer. If you’re looking for good southern Appalachian Mountain fiction, I suggest you read this book. It is the first in a series by Vicki Lane.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet