I spent time yesterday morning with children at my neighborhood library, the Tisdale branch of the Jackson/Hinds Library. I read Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature, a work-in-progress titled “My New School,” and we all made instant books. Many students also used Private Eye loupes to look at snails.
I finished a novel today that I have to mention here. It was All the Living by C.E. Morgan. I want to quote from it, but I gave it to my friend to read. When I get it back, I’ll be copying some words into my notebook. Many reviewers have praised Morgan’s descriptions of place, but what I loved was the characterizations. Aloma was flesh and blood for me and her meditations on love and want and happiness made me think. I will be looking for more from Morgan and I’ll be reading All the Living again. I have to say it was much more to my liking than my book group’s latest selection, Netherland (suggested by me).
Here are two more of Richard’s water pictures. He did some tweaking in Photoshop.
Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature is on the list of titles nominated for 2011 Notable Children’s Books. The final balloting will be done at the American Library Association‘s mid-winter conference in San Diego. I really hope it makes it! You can see the entire list of nominated titles here.
What I’m Reading
I’m in the thick of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I am thoroughly enjoying it. You don’t have to be well versed in English history to get completely absorbed into the world Mantel creates. I really look forward to my reading time(s) each day. What a different world.
Just before Wolf Hall, I read The Fall of the House of Zeus by Curtis Wilkie. It was a compelling read, but gave me a sickening feeling in my stomach more than once. Back when I was a reporter, I covered some of the events in the book. How different it looks from the inside.
Reading aloud even makes statewide standardized test days more bearable. I volunteered to be a proctor during this week’s tests at my sons’ middle school. (Well, I was nudged into it by my middle child.) I was assigned to a 7th grade classroom with Mrs. Whitley, a reading teacher.
The first time I served as a proctor, a few years ago, I felt as miserable as the kids as we sat in a room with nothing to do and waited for everything to be in place for the testing to begin. In short order, I was casting around for anything to read. I grabbed the novel the social studies teacher was teaching and started reading — out loud. The kids looked at me like I had lost my mind, but they asked if I would continue after the tests had been completed and were on the way back to the test administrator.
Ever since, whenever I am talked into proctoring, I make sure I have a suitable book. Last year, for a class of 8th graders, I read from Walter Dean Myers’ book Fallen Angels. This year, I grabbed Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin. I reviewed the book here last year.
I always have to believe enough in what I am doing to bully through some of the initial reactions. Is this woman crazy? Is she really reading those words? Did she just say ‘yo’? Yo? I proctored two days and they asked me to make sure I brought the book back the next day. Several asked whether it was available at the school library. I told them how they could get it through the public library across the street, that they should pursue it through inter-library loan if it wasn’t in the collection.
Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but I know they enjoyed spending time with Ray, Jose, Trini, and Yolie. It made it much more fun for me, too. (I’m still trying to figure out how to improve the experience of walking the floor for two and a half hours while they test.) Charlie Chaplin slow motion, maybe?
Growing Patterns was included in a roundup of concept books in the May 2010 issue of Notes from the Horn Book, an online newsletter. The issue’s headliner is an interesting interview with Laura Vaccaro Seeger. I’d already seen and noted the three other books grouped with mine: Stephen R. Swinburne’s Whose Shoes? Mark Gonyea’s A Book About Color, and Ken Robbins’s For Good Measure. Three of the four are illustrated with photographs and two of the four (mine and Swinburne’s) are books by my publisher: Boyds Mills Press. Cool!
Another note from the Notes newsletter: Deborah Wiles‘s Countdown is featured in a roundup of War Stories. I am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this book, which is billed as a documentary novel. It is in the War Stories section because it deals with the Cold War. (I have just finished a Korean War story, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered and I am about to begin Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, a Vietnam War story.)
I found this frog in the basement and released it to a halfway house (plastic tub with lots of dirt and hiding places) onto my porch. Richard snapped a few photos before it took its leave. This is the first time I’ve seen one of these guys around. Mostly, I just see toads.
Leaving Gee’s Bend is a just-published middle grade novel by Irene Latham, a Birmingham author I met through SCBWI-Southern Breeze. Irene and I have a few things in common: a house full of sons, a fondness for seamstresses and quilters, and a love of words. While I haven’t yet read Leaving Gee’s Bend, I am looking forward to it. I decided to interview Irene during launch week. I asked her about things I am curious about, but if you post your questions, I’m sure she’ll pop in and answer them.
Tell me what Leaving Gee’s Bend is about.
Leaving Gee’s Bend is a heart-touching tale of unexpected adventure in the vein of such classics as Sounder, Little House on the Prairie and Stone Fox – stories rooted in history that families can read and enjoy together. It’s about a determined, ten-year-old girl in Depression-era Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who sets out to save her sick mother and records her adventures in quilt pieces. It includes the real-life 1932 raid on Gee’s Bend and subsequent Red Cross rescue.
How did you choose your topic?
It really chose me. I was inspired to write this book in 2003 when my husband and I traveled to New York City and viewed the Quilts of Gee’s Bend art exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Although I live only 120 miles from Gee’s Bend, it wasn’t until then that I became aware of the art and history of Gee’s Bend. Something happened to me as I walked through those rooms… I was moved by the quilts and by the voices of the quilt makers. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
I asked Irene about writing about such a different time, place, and culture. Here are some of her thoughts about that and an excerpt from the book.
The biggest challenge when writing across time and culture is fear: what if I get it wrong? What if it doesn’t resonate with the African American community in general or in particular, the quilters of Gee’s Bend? Anytime one is writing a historical piece there is a strong responsibility to be as accurate as possible, which means research must be thorough, diligent, and intense. Fortunately for me, the history of Gee’s Bend has been well documented. In order to capture an authentic voice, I spent hours and hours listening to audio recordings of the quilters telling their stories.
And then I took a leap into imagination. I asked myself questions like this: What if your community was so remote and isolated that it didn’t have a doctor, and your mother was seriously ill? What if you were black and you saw a white person for the very first time? What if you thought the whole world was just like what you saw from your front porch and found out it wasn’t? What if you wanted to make a quilt but didn’t have anything but scraps of cloth to work with?
Next, I spent a great deal of time doing exercises in empathy. I used poetry to help me connect with my characters on the most basic level. Even though I did not grow up without shoes in a place remote as Gee’s Bend, I found Ludelphia and I still had a great deal in common. Male, female, black, white, 1930s or now, we’re all human. What connects us all is our ability to FEEL things. So I focused heavily on the emotional lives of my characters. One exercise I found particularly useful was writing a poem in two voices, inspired by Paul Fleischman‘s Newbery Award winning book, Joyful Noise: Poems in Two Voices.
How important were images during your writing process?
I lived and breathed those quilt images in the beautiful coffee table books that accompanied the art exhibit. Any product you’ve ever seen with a Gee’s Bend quilt on it? I own it. And I was able to see the quilts on exhibit several times while working on this project. A theme in the book is “every quilt tells a story.” And it’s really true! The bold colors and geometrics of the quilts had a huge impact on everything from character development to plot lines.
6-10:30 a.m. Rise, walk dog with Richard, prepare boys’ lunch, walk dog with friend, Pilates.
10:40 -11:05 a.m. Conversation with filmmaker (who happens also to be a friend) about script for book trailer. Glad to be working with a professional. Moving images and audio are way out of my area of expertise. Grateful for grant from state and local arts agencies that made it possible for me to hire professional filmmakers for my book trailer.
11:10-11:30 a.m. Shower.
11:35-11:55 a.m. Start blog post for later this week, featuring an interview with video.
12:00-1:00 p.m. Re-heat lunch and eat with Richard. Sneak downstairs to computer for a minute to email some links and a still photograph to filmmaker.
1:05-2:30 p.m. Rest. A little longer than usual because I was savoring the end of a fun novel, American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. (The cover art bothers me a tad; Alice Blackwell marries in a cotton two piece that her mother-in-law dismisses as a pioneer girl outfit; the dress on the cover is NOT that.)
2:35- 3:02 p.m. Put finishing touches on blog post.
3:02 p.m. Email from magazine editor. Needs phone conference on piece slated for August. Reply that I am free until 3:50 p.m. when I must collect two younger boys from school.
3:05 – 3:35 p.m. Tie three split chicken breasts around two onions and two sprigs of fresh rosemary. Rub with olive oil, more rosemary, and some thyme. Editor calls. Use cordless phones and headset to discuss magazine piece. Concerns must be answered. A potential re-write angle is discussed. Editor promises to email the potential new angle. I promise to think — and figure out a direction by noon next day.
3:45 p.m. Start oven preheating. Bundle up for unseasonably cold weather. Gloves, hat, scarf, fleece. Go to door to let my oldest son in. “Is it that cold inside?” he asks. G’s always a bright spot in my day.
3:50 p.m. Pick up younger boys at school. Conference with teacher about blazers that need to be purchased with booster club monies. I am the keeper of the booster club monies, but I forgot to bring the total. Her computer is down and the Blazer company’s phone line is busy. We agree to talk next day. I promise her we have enough money for 5 blazers — even though I don’t know how much money we have, nor the exact cost.
4:30 p.m. Home. Put chicken in oven. Peel white and sweet potatoes. Add to roasting pan.
4:50 p.m. Print potential re-write angle. Call critique partner to see if she can brainstorm later. Make 6:30 p.m. appointment. Sit in living room chair to consider rewrite.
5 p.m. Place call to editor — even though it is an hour after close on the East Coast. Editor at desk. (They work long hours.) Convey my belief that rewrite angle is bad idea, but promise to try something later.
5:10 p.m Wash and trim asparagus for steaming. Cut the chicken while Richard makes gravy.
5:30 p.m Sit down to roast chicken, potatoes, steamed asparagus, and gravy.
5:55 p.m. Walk dog with Richard. One boy does dishes, one boy feeds dog and takes out trash, and one waters the plants.
6:30 p.m. Home just in time for call with critique partner. Not really much brainstorming. I’ve decided I can’t rewrite from proposed angle. Back and forth. Discuss a small bit of school business.
6:45 p.m. Sit at computer. Bring up final, edited version of magazine piece. Pull out a few research sources, search internet for more information. Become more firm in my position that proposed angle won’t work. Write email to editor. At a loss for how to proceed. Suggest scrapping article or pulling byline. Am out of ideas. Give morning schedule so editor can reach me.
7:45 p.m. Read to D from Shadow’s Edge.
8:30 p.m. Seek to connect with N about science fair project that is causing problems. He’s in no mood for it.
8:30 – 9:30 p.m. A little kitchen tidying, a little web browsing. Eat popcorn with nice, warm cup of tea. 10 p.m. Asleep.
Day 2 (Today)
Early routine same. (substitute recumbent bike and treadmill for water aerobics because pool heater is not working and water is COLD.)
6:54 a.m. Editor replies via email. Editor ready to throw in towel, too, but only temporarily. Will sub another article for August. Will work through issues somehow.
9:30 a.m. Take model airplane to school so youngest son will have it for Science Olympiad after school.
9:45 a.m. Re-heat black-eyed peas prepared two days ago for today’s church lunch for the food pantry customers.
10 a.m. Shower.
10:50 a.m. Hand off black-eyed peas to friend who is attending lunch.
11 a.m. Prepare lesson on transferring digital photographs for 5th graders. Review script and time line from filmmakers. Field email query about macro lens. 12 noon. Eat reheated soup for lunch.
3:50-4:10 p.m. Transfer students’ digital photographs to my computer.
4:15 p.m. Head to Post Office to send check for Blazers via Priority Mail.
4:50 – 5:20 p.m. Home. Brief chat with Richard about the day.
5:20 p.m. Take G to piano lesson. While he’s having lesson, run to library to get book.
6:10 p.m. Home to Richard’s tasty pasta salad (quinoa salad for me because I eat gluten-free).
Walk dog. Kids do chores. Blog. Review script with Richard. Read to Douglas. Sleep.
I knew this book before I started reading it. My mother lent me her copy and I had her recommendation. It also appeared on several Best Books of 2009 lists. I shunned it for a while. Mom’s recommendation came with a warning. It wasn’t easy to read. (“I don’t know how anyone who read this book could send one more soldier into Iraq,” she said. This was just after President Obama decided to send 30,000 more into Afghanistan.)
I figured a book that took a close up look at the war in Iraq wouldn’t be an easy read. I did wonder what would set it apart, however, from any book about any war. War up close is awful. Any war. Even World War II, which was the “good war,” fought by the men of the “greatest generation.” The latest book I read about World War II was Thread of Grace, a novel, by Mary Doria Russell. Resistance fighters in the hills of Italy ambushed German soldiers, townspeople were rounded up and murdered after sheltering and feeding resistance fighters and bureaucrats who forged papers for and fed fleeing Jews died at the hands of American liberators who mistook them for who they appeared to be.
I don’t have any close up experience with war. The closest I get to knowing real soldiers is high school classmates (including the much younger sister of my best friend from high school), a cousin who is an officer in the Air Force, and friends from graduate school (also officers, at least one of whom helped write the new counter-insurgency manual).
Mostly, all I know about Iraq is what I hear on the news. Each of the 12 chapters in The Good Soldiers begins with a quote from George W. Bush. The narrative that follows is often an excruciating minute-by-minute unfolding of events that exposes the Washington rhetoric for the wishful and wrong-headed thinking that it is.
In order to do what they do, soldiers must be true believers. The lieutenant colonel who leads the batallion Finkel writes about clings to his mantra “It’s all good,” long after he knows that he’s in a fight that he finds all-but-impossible to comprehend. It is not what he trained for, and even though he doggedly pursues the new counterinsurgency strategies (endless and exhausting meetings with local police commanders and the like, re-taking the local gas station from the insurgents, and trying like hell to re-start a sewer project that had ground to a halt because of corruption and lack of security), he finally has to acknowledge that sometimes being a true believer can be awfully close to “jackassery”.
This war, as Finkel writes it, puts a lot of men and women (soldiers, contractors, Iraqi interpreters, Iraqi police, Iraqi civilians) in such awful situations. Many die. Many suffer physical and emotional injuries. Many soldiers have days when they can believe this suffering has a purpose. That purpose, however, is elusive. “Creating security for the Iraqi people.” What security?
Finkel does a masterful job of putting the reader where the soldiers are — whether that’s in a humvee, a dark (alcohol-free) bar, an army rehab hospital, a meeting with General Petraus, or the barracks. He drew from firsthand observation, military surveillance videos, military reports, transcripts of speeches and congressional hearings. The organization he brings via narrative makes this book extraordinarily readable, but Finkel still manages to convey the terrifying chaos of war. Even in the midst of the cruelty and horror, Finkel also lets us see the strength, courage, steeliness, naivete, grace, humor, and integrity of the human beings who are fighting and living with the consequences of this war.
Finding this book a few days ago was a great stroke of luck. It was on a library sale table and it sounded like a perfect book in which to lose myself. It was. The main character, David Winkler, has vivid dreams that sometimes come true. This becomes problematic when he dreams that his infant daughter, Grace, drowns in a flood. When the water begins to rise, David first tries to convince his wife, Sandy, to move Grace to safety. When Sandy insists on staying, he decides he must leave — hoping to disrupt the dream’s predictive power by refusing to play a his role. He flees, ending up on an island in the Caribbean.
Part of what propels the novel forward is David’s immediate and all-consuming desire to know how Grace (and Sandy) fared after he left town. He calls. He writes. Eventually, he earns his way back home and tries to find out what happened. David is an interesting character and he finds good people to help him along in his quest. I think this would be a terrific book for a book club.
Exam week always brings requests from the boys for big books. They want plenty of material for the time between when they finish their tests and when the very last person in the very last room in the school finishes his test. D (6th grade) is in the middle of the Artemis Fowl series. I have read a chapter here or there, but he’s become quite speedy with his reading so I can’t make much sense of the plot. I gave Jon Spiro, an American in book three, a southern accent. It made a nice contrast with Artemis’ arrogant Irish accent.
G (9th grade) re-read Accelerando by Charles Stross. (He bought a paperback copy even though he owns an e-copy for his Kindle because he doesn’t take his Kindle to school.) His wonderful English teacher has been feeding him books: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski, 2008), Swords in the North (Paul Anderson, 1939), and Things Fall Apart (Chinua Acebe, 1958). Today he borrowed back from his brother The Way of Shadows (Brent Weeks, 2008).
Monday, N (7th grade) read Cracker (Cynthia Kadohata, 2007), but today he mistakenly left a 3-inch tome about World of Warcraft on the kitchen counter. His classmate lent him a copy of Eragon (he tells me he was desparate — though it used to be one of his favorites). Richard has a stack of spy books beside his bed, but he’s been pulling extra duty on the computer to try to keep up with the video needs of the blog.
For me, a good novel is peopled by characters so real you feel you know them. This was how it was with Ray and Jose, the teenagers at the center of Paul Griffin’s Ten Mile River. The boys, who met and bonded during a stint in juvenile detention, have cobbled together a life on the margins in New York City. They steal food, grills, and cars, but they also share scarce food with a passel of mutts, wrestle and make jokes about body smells, noises and haircuts. Ray meets Trini during a trip to the braid shop for his weekly haircut. Though smitten, he introduces Trini to Jose and watches helplessly as they get together. Trini’s aunt Yolie, the big-hearted proprietor of the braid shop, offers the boys the closest thing to hope and normalcy they’ve seen for a while. Despite Trini’s urging and Yolie’s offer of honest work, the boys can’t quite extricate themselves from their thieving associates.
The narrative power of this slim volume is strong. I didn’t want to put it down; I devoured it in two sittings.
Luckily, I had Griffin’s the orange houses to pick up next. In it, I met the unforgettable Mik Sykes, Jimmi Sixes, and Fatima. I swallowed this one in a single sitting/lying down. Mik can’t hear well and likes to let the world fade into the background. Jimmi is a mentally ill vet and street poet. Fatima is a refuge from a failed African nation with a talent for folding paper. Griffin brings them together in a powerful story of friendship.
If I were teaching high school English or facilitating a book group with young adults, I would suggest these books. Griffin is a skilled writer who has spent enough time with adolescents in tough circumstances to pick up the lingo, to see through their tough outer shells, and to examine their deepest desires.
I am glad I met Griffin at the recent Mississippi Library Association conference. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his work.