Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The big 10!

This was taken on April 11, the day that Hazel Nina's weight was in the double digits for the first time! 10 pounds, almost 5 times what she weighed on the day she was born. A miracle, a miracle.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson

Miracles on Maple Hill
by Virginia Sorenson
illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
middle grade fiction 1956
library book
finished 4/6/14

If asked what is my favorite kind of fiction the answer would be a book that shows the healing powers of place, particularly the natural world, and Miracles on Maple Hill certainly does this. Ten-year-old Marly’s father has post-traumatic stress disorder- before it had a name- in the years after the Second World War. He jumps at the slightest noise, he strikes out verbally at his family, isn’t able to work, and is constantly tired. His wife has an idea for the whole family to travel from their home in Pittsburg to a rural area of Pennsylvania, where she used to spend summers with her grandmother. Marly has always been smitten with the stories her mother told her of those days, and she feels that it will be just what her father needs. The plan is that he will stay on after their visit and fix the place up, while they come weekends, and then stay the whole summer. As you will probably guess, working on the house, gardening, and sugaring help the man find peace and joy in living again. 

There are neighbors Mr. Chris and his wife Chrissy who are great friends to the whole family. Mr. Chris, sensing a kindred spirit, teaches Marly about all the ‘miracles’ that happen up on Maple Hill, beginning with the maple sugaring season. He says,
“Can you smell that, Marly? Did you get that whiff just then from the sugarhouse? I told my wife this morning, this time Lee’s [Marly’s mother] coming for the first breath of spring.”
She had got it. It was absolute sweetness, like a drift of a scent from a lilac bush. Like passing an orchard in full bloom. But different. A different sweetness -“Your great-grandmother used to say there was all outdoors in that smell,” Mr. Chris said. “She called it the first miracle when the sap came up.”
He brings her out to the woods when the spring flowers come along. I learned about a plant I have in my own yard that I’ve written about in my letters, bloodroot. 

I’ve never taken a picture of it in bud, which Mr. Chris calls, “Easter candles.” 
All over the ground around her were great green leaves, each with a cleft in the side. Up through each cleft came a long thin stem, and on top of each stem stood a pointed bud exactly like a candle flame. 
And the reason it is called bloodroot:
It had a scarlet root, as bright as blood. … it’s absolutely true that if anybody eats it, his heart will stop in a day.
He goes on to tell her about hepaticas. 
Folks thought, Mr. Chris said, that hepatica leaves were good for liver medicine because the leaves were the shape of livers. “So it’s even called ‘liverwort,’ sometimes,” … it’s got more names than you can shake a stick at. Some say it’s a ‘herb-trinity’ because of the three leaves. Some call it a ‘squirrel cup.’ And some call it a ‘mouse-ear.’ Take your choice.” 
Marly’s mother remembers “Grandma saying you couldn’t bring things out of the ground until they were ready.” But Marly learns from Mr. Chris that you can ‘help’ them come along by pulling off the leaf covering. 
The flowers had to push their stems up through layers and layers of old brown leaves, and sometimes one of the leaves was extra tough and wouldn’t move off, so the poor flowers were stuck together and coudn’t open. The minute Marly broke off the tight old leaves, the flowers opened right away. … Mr. Chris made her feel as if every flower was a particular old friend. It was grand to see his face when he noticed something for the first time that year.
Marly has a brother two years older, and the book shows the 1950s idea that boys were the adventurers and girls were scared of the unknown. He goes off on his own, and she feels badly. Mr. Chris opens up a world that becomes rather hers alone, a separate one from her brother’s, which builds her self-esteem. And he comes to admire her, as well.

As summer draws to a close, Marly is filled with regret that she won’t see the fall, which may just be the most beautiful time of year on Maple Hill. There are decisions to be made, and each family member has a voice in them. Young readers will wonder what will happen, and worry when Mr. Chris gets sick. They will be interested in a 'hermit' who lives nearby. So, the book is a beautiful mix of information and appealing story.

Miracles on Maple Hill received the Newbury Medal in 1957. It is a wonderful book that doesn’t speak down to children and makes them feel included in the written conversations. I’ve read this a couple times over the years, and love it more with each reading. And I’ve now bought copies to share with my grandchildren as they get older.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott

Weeds Find a Way
Words by Cindy Jenson-Elliott
Pictures by Carolyn Fisher
children's book 2014
finished 4/10/14

This is the fourth children's book I've been sent by Blue Slip Media. 

The others were Arbor Day Square, Planting the Wild Garden, and Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers. I loved each one, as I do Weeds Find a Way. What the books have in common is teaching little ones about the natural world. Their website is here and their Facebook page here

The book begins

and goes on to explain how the weed seeds travel.

This is a subject that even we adults may not think about too often. We may gripe about weeds, without realizing how they spread. Perhaps reading this book to the children in our lives will give us a new appreciation for these quite wonderful plants. There is a lot of press now about how crucial milk weed is to the life-cycle of the monarch butterfly, and who knows what important part other weeds might play in the world. 

If conditions for growth aren't ideal, weeds will wait.

And after their waiting period is over, the book tells about the many unexpected places a weed might settle in to grow.

At the end, there are two pages telling the reader about many weeds, with such fun names as teasel and cheeseweed. 

This book is a gem, for children and for the adults who read to them. I learned a lot. It's a book to carry outdoors, while going on a search for weeds. It is wonderful for country children and city children alike, because weeds do grow everywhere. 

Today while Hazel Nina was asleep in my lap, Margaret read the book aloud. It was a delightful experience. We'll read it to her over and over as she gets bigger, and to her soon-to-be-born cousin, Campbell Walker. I'm sure they will both love it. I didn't think to have Tom take a picture of the reading, but here is the darling girl just afterwards, all set to go home.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Our day out

As I mentioned on the April post of afternoon gardens, the grammy, the daughter, and the granddaughter had a lovely shopping day. We went to two stores which we've visited many times since Margaret was little. First we went to our local health food store, where the owner, our friend, has been following Hazel’s progress on Facebook, and was eager to meet the little lady. We had a wonderful visit. I took some pictures and posted them on Facebook with the words, ‘third generation shopper.’ The occasion filled me with a new and exquisite joy - the pleasure of sharing my daughter’s childhood with her daughter. 

We then proceeded down the hill for a bittersweet visit to our independent bookstore. Bittersweet because it is closing, and that very day was its last day in business. This store has been such a part of our lives. Forty years ago, Tom and I would haunt the aisles on a late-opening Friday night. By the time our kids came along, the store had moved to a bigger location, and also sold the most wonderful children’s books and toys. There was a toy creature that rode a unicycle on wire suspended from the ceiling, propelled by batteries or magic. There was a wooden train set up on a table at just the right height for little ones to play with while their parents were shopping. There were stuffed animals and games and tapes and just about anything you could imagine. The downstairs was given over to children, while the books for grownups were upstairs on the main floor. It was bright and cheery and welcoming. The clerks were knowledgeable readers, and there was a whole shelf devoted to employee recommendations. It was the ‘anchor’ store for Main Street, and such a part of the community. There were yearly contests in the schools where children would draw bookmarks, and the winning designs made into official bookmarks which were tucked into books bought at the store.

Some years ago, the original owner sold it, and gradually many of the older staff left. We got to know the new people, but the feeling wasn’t quite the same. And then of course the changes that were felt all through the book world began to happen. Internet shopping and electronic books began to gnaw away at the store’s business, and then the recession compounded the situation. I am as guilty as the next person. It was very hard for me to go there and spend $25 for one book when I could buy two online for just a little more. I’d still go in at Christmas time and buy presents but I winced at the price. They tried some new things to bring people in: a little cafe, some author appearances, a book club, and various classes. Finally the two floors were combined into one to cut costs. But in the end none of these things could save the store. And so, it is now closed, and Hazel Nina will never know it as her mother and I did. 

Our third stop was to a delightful shop that a woman keeps in the front rooms of her house. It is packed with everything delightful, from jewelry to notecards, and candles to baby shoes. It is like an old-fashioned, much-loved living room. The woman is also a friend who has been keeping up with Hazel Nina on Facebook, and was overjoyed to see her in person. 

Everywhere we went kind people flocked around, some we knew and others we didn’t. After hearing Hazel’s story, one man in his seventies said that when his sister was born, a wedding ring could be slid up her arm. 

It was a day that filled our hearts with love and friendship, and a sense of belonging.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Year of Afternoon Gardens - April

Temps in the 50s, sunshine, melting snow, shopping with Margaret and Hazel - who could ask for a better day!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Product placement/towels

After we ate at the Mexican restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day, the four of us went shopping at BJs and then at Walmart. At the latter, I was amazed to find some towels that were made in the US. I stopped in my tracks and happily read the labels. 

And bought two towels. 

This is not your old-fashioned American textile manufacturer. It is a modern, truly global company. There aren’t whole towns all over the south making the towels of my childhood. But there are 200 Americans employed in the manufacture of these towels. You may read more at the site.

I’m not naive enough to believe that the American south will ever again make the towels of yesteryear. All the world is connected now. But it makes me feel good to know that within this giant company, there are 200 folks in Georgia doing the work that Rick Bragg’s family did.

Very strange

This is very, very strange. I am working on a blog post and plan to offer a link to a book report I wrote years ago on a Rick Bragg book. While I read over the book report, I decided the quotes should be a different color from what I originally used so they would stand out better. So I went into the post and did so. But when I clicked 'update' the post showed up as being written NOW. Weird, weird, weird.

The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg

Addendum: this book report was originally written in 2010, but in 2014 I changed the color on the quotes so they would stand out better, and the whole post came up as being published inn 2014.

11. The Most They Ever Had
by Rick Bragg
nonfiction, 2009
finished, 2/23/10

Outsiders like to talk about the working people of the Deep South in clichés, like to say their lives are consumed by football, stock car racing, stump jumping, and a whole lot of violent history. But it is work that defines them. You hear it under every shade tree, at every dinner on the ground, whole conversations about timber cut, post holes dug, transmissions pulled.
I don't live in the Deep South. I live in the far North and I can honestly say this is how it is up here too among the working people. My father didn't have any hobbies. He didn't fish or hunt or bowl. He loved the Red Sox but he lived in the time of day games, so the voice of Curt Gowdy accompanied him as he drove or as he sold cars at his Pontiac garage. When he got together with others, he mostly talked about either his work or those long-suffering Sox. He didn't work with his hands, but he was still a 'working man.' In my life I've known many, many people like him; men and women whose work is the heart of their lives.

Rick Bragg is the chronicler of these people. He is the literary spokesman for a group of people who rarely write about themselves. He shares their stories with both readers who know them, and readers who don't. His first three books were specific in their topics, each of them about a family member. In The Most They Ever Had he writes more generally about the people who worked in the textile mills of the South. He tells us what their working lives were like, and how they felt about those lives being taken away forever with the closing of these mills.

It wasn't the conditions in the mills or the low pay that scared the workers; it was the fear of losing those dangerous, low paying jobs if the mills closed. It is very difficult for those of us on the outside to understand. How does a worker live with this?
The machines snatched the hair from some people's heads, ripped the clothes off bodies, and did worse...
Others perished more slowly, choking on the cotton they breathed in the unventilated, oven-like rooms.
How they bear it, and why they bear it is the story Rick Bragg tells us. As time went on conditions got better.
In time, they worked not just for subsistence, but for one of the best blue collar paychecks in their foothills. The modern-day workers, whose ancestors labored to stave off deprivation, made ten dollars an hour, eleven dollars, more, and bought modest houses, bass boats, and above-ground swimming pools. The mill here, like others around the country, became safer, cleaner, better ventilated. A job that had once carried a social stigma - lintheads, people called them - now carried a rock-solid respectability. And the thing the mill workers never could explain to better-off people was, it always had.
But human dignity, in a global economy, is just one more cost to cut. Long before the economic meltdown of 2008, the age of the textile worker was coming to an end.
In 1991, an American trade journal ran this advertisement:
Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for thirty-three cents an hour.
As I look around at the tags on various items in my life, I find that my flannel shirt from LL Bean was made in El Salvador; my bathroom towels were made in India and in Turkey; my Reebok shoes were made in China; my car was made in Germany; my Nikon camera was made in Thailand. In my brief survey, the only thing I could find which was made in the USA were my Fiesta Ware dishes.

It didn't used to be like this. Most of our cars were made here. Our cameras were made in Rochester, NY by the Eastman Kodak company. And our cottons, our sheets and towels and underwear were made in the American South, in the mills which Rick Bragg writes about in this book. These workers took pride in what they did with their hands. Not just mill jobs are being lost, but so many 'little' jobs which took human skill and talent. There used to be a shoe repair place in town, but it has sat empty since the owner died because no one wanted to take it over. There used to be seamstresses but I don't believe there are any in the area now. If the zipper breaks, we throw the coat away or use it without zipping it up. If the sole of the shoe wears out, we get new shoes. I've heard there is a lack of plumbers and electricians. What happened to the basic jobs of life? The common, everyday needs that must be met?
"It's got to the point, my brother Sam said, "that the only thing we make in this country is money."
Maggie wrote a terrific review of a book on this subject: Shop Class as Soulcraft.

In his acknowledgements, Rick Bragg says about writing this book:
It began more than seven years ago, and for a slim volume has taken up more work, more time, than anything I have ever done.

Each chapter tells a story of a separate life, though the sufferings they endured do run together across the pages. They are grim in many places and sad in the spaces in between, but when I told that to a friend, worried that no one would stick with such a book cover to cover, he told me not to worry. "Well, it ain't a damn barn dance, is it? It's an American tragedy."
Rick Bragg wanted to get it right. He wanted to be sure he told their stories, and that he gave these people the homage they deserve. I think he succeeded. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Rick Bragg is one of the best writers in the world, past or present or future. And the interesting thing to me is that he writes nonfiction. He brings poetry to truth. This book isn't cheery but it is uplifting. The reader does not feel sorry for these people. Rick Bragg has told their story and given them the dignity they deserve. I don't believe anyone could have done it better.

Another book report on a Rick Bragg book at Letters from a Hill Farm here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

February Reading

February's books were as stellar as January's.  

9. My Turquoise Years 
by M.A.C. Farrant
nonfiction 2004
finished 2/1/14

I wrote about this book here.

10. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death - book 1 in the Grantchester Mystery series
by James Runcie
mystery 2012
library book
finished 2/11/14

11. Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night - book 2 in the Grantchester Mystery series
by James Runcie
mystery 2013
finished 2/18/14

I feel like I’ve been waiting for the Grantchester mysteries my whole reading life. For me, they are perfect. I loved every minute I spent inside the books. There’s a little feeling of Agatha Christie, a strong sense of England in the 1950s, a very human Anglican priest, and characters that aren’t caricatures or silly.

When I went searching for photos of Grantchester in the 1950s to add to these book notes, the page for the series came up. These pictures give the reader a sense of the place in those years. And on the site, you may take a walking tour along with Canon Sidney Chambers. This is one of the true wonders of the internet for a reader so far away. I can ‘see’ where the book takes place. This is a particularly wonderful website. Please do visit and find out about the series, the background, British history.

I read these books on my Kindle, but I’ve ordered them in paperback, and plan to buy the new one in the same form when it comes out. Some books I just have to have in the ‘real’ version.

12. Park Life
by Katharine D'Souza
fiction 2012
finished 2/24/14

The only other time I’ve read a book set in Birmingham was Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. I thought it presented quite a gloomy view of a city that had seen better days. It was published five years before Park Life, and set a few years earlier. Birmingham seems transformed into a vibrant, appealing city. I think that if I were British, and younger, I might want to move there myself. 
The café stands on Poplar Road; perhaps why they've called it Tall Trees. The other businesses are an interesting, independent mix ranging from the niche market of Caribbean delicacies to the practicality of a launderette. A steady stream of cars and pedestrians flowed to and from the High Street and back.
I liked the road. Something about the atmosphere has elements of the familiar small town scale, but then there are hints of spice, undercurrents of exoticism: the contemporary, cosmopolitan attitude I want for myself.
Near the end of the book a park is described.
"What I like about parks like this, is they're one of the few places in the city where you see Birmingham's diverse population all in one space." ...
I looked around. He was right. All races were represented. All of the families were out enjoying the park in the same way - they wanted some space, some air, some greenery around them. In such a landlocked city, it made sense that everyone congregated there.
Often in the book, Birmingham was referred to as Brum. From wikipedia:
People from Birmingham are called 'Brummies', a term derived from the city's nickname of 'Brum'. This originates from the city's dialect name, Brummagem, which may in turn have been derived from one of the city's earlier names, 'Bromwicham'.

The two main characters are Susan and Craig. She is a woman in her mid-forties who has left her husband and a ‘cushy’ life in the suburbs, and he is a man of 25, who has quite a good job and his own flat. Their stories are told in alternating chapters. 

I was amazed at how Katharine D’Souza could get inside the head of such disparate characters. One might expect that a woman could imagine and express the thoughts and feelings of Susan, but she describes Craig as easily as if she were this young man. She’s got the language, and the seemingly shallow lifestyle, and the often hidden deeper concerns of Craig and so many like him down pat. If you are offended by swearing, you might be put off but the reality is that most people that age use particular words as just part of their lexicon. As I read once of the Irish, the ‘f’ word is expressed as all parts of speech - noun, verb, adjective. With Craig, it works and the story would be false without it. 

Like Mr. Lynch’s Holiday, Park Life is a new book with a cheerful spirit and a happy ending. Not that everything is pleasant or easy for the characters, but they are not overwhelmed with horrible life stories. The characters are people like most of us. 

I found out about this book here. I’ve also bought Katharine D'Souza's newest one Deeds Not Words.

And every time I read the title I’m reminded of the old Blur song which I love. Not that it has anything to do with the book, but it is great fun. The lyrics follow.

Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur
Of what is known as
And morning soup can be avoided
If you take a route straight through what is known as

John's got brewers droop he gets intimidated
By the dirty pigeons, they love a bit of him
Who's that gut lord marching?
You should cut down on your porklife mate, get some exercise

All the people
So many people
They all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife
Know what I mean?

I get up when I want except on Wednesdays
When I get rudely awakened by the dustmen
I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea
And I think about leaving the house

I feed the pigeons I sometimes feed the sparrows too
It gives me a sense of enormous well-being
And then I'm happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge
There will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife


It's got nothing to do with
Vorsprung durch Technik you know
And it's not about you joggers
Who go round and round and round

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife

All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife

13. Fancy Nancy 
by Jane O'Connor; illus. by Robin Preiss Glasser
children's book 2006
library book
finished 2/24//14

I wrote about this here.

14. The Violets of March
by Sarah Jio
fiction 2011
library book
finished 2/28/14

I began this near the end of February, sure that I would be reading it in the month of March, but it was so enjoyable, I finished it before March even began. A lovely book. Life is not turning out as Emily expected it might. She wrote a highly successful book many years ago, and hasn't been able to write another one. Her husband had an affair, and the marriage ended in divorce. She's at what the British call, 'a loose end.' Her great-aunt Bee invites her to come spend the month of March on the beautiful Bainbridge Island in Washington state. 

Would that we all had such a place to go to when things weren't going our way. She finds inspiration for a new book, a decades old mystery to solve, and of course, romance. But the book is not facile. There is depth in the characters, and I found each of them interesting and appealing in their own ways. I love books that have connections between past and present. The Violets of March was wonderful, and I look forward to the other books Sarah Jio has written.