July 2020

by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (2020)

For the past several months, technology and various media forms have revealed much to Americans about racism and racist incidents. I think many Americans are bewildered by recent events because they haven’t had (or taken) opportunities to interact with people of other races and cultures or to learn about the effects of 400 years of slavery and post-slavery history on American culture. If American adults are bewildered and don’t fully understand why things are the way they are and how they got that way, imagine how our young people may feel and think! Jason Reynolds is the ideal person to fill this void with his book Stamped.

Dr. Ibram Kendi wrote his award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America in 2016. He states his purpose to the Reader:

“To know the past is to know the present. To know the present is to know yourself.

I write about the history of racism to understand racism today. I want to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting me today. I want you to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting you and America today.” [p. ix]

Kendi’s book is the first to trace the “complete story of racist ideas.” That drew Reynolds to it and led to a collaboration with Kendi to write a “remix” geared specifically to teen and YA readers (although adult readers are welcome and can enjoy it equally well).

I wrote my February 2020 blog about one of many books Reynolds has written. It’s worth repeating his background here:

“Inspired by rap, he started writing poetry at age 9…but never read a novel from cover to cover until he was 17! Why? Because the books were BORING. He knows he’s not the only young person who ‘hated’ reading.”

He has now written well over a dozen books for young people and won too many awards and honors to mention here. There’s no one better suited to write a not-boring, not-history “remix” of Kendi’s book for young people. The fact that many adult readers express how much they wish they’d had this book when they were young proves its value in filling a void.

The structure of the book is chronological and divided into five time period sections that show the progression of changing rationales for slavery, then for post-slavery repression. The time periods are:
1415-1728; 1743-1826; 1826-1879; 1868-1963; 1963-today.

The people Reynolds discusses fall mainly into three categories:
segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists.

Some people fall into more than one category over the course of their lifetime. Reynolds gives us his own definitions of each category:

Segregationists: “People who hate you for not being like them.”

Assimilationists: “People who like you…because you’re like them.”

Antiracists: “They love you because you’re like you.” [pp. 3-4]

Obviously these are not hard and fast rules or definitions—we’re dealing with people, after all—but the structure Reynolds has devised to tell the story is most helpful in following the evolution of events.

History tells us that slavery was practiced many centuries before Africans were brought to the Americas. It’s not a new concept. What’s different is that a Portuguese man named Zurara claimed that “what made Portugal different from their European neighbors in terms of slave trading” was that “the Portuguese now saw enslaving [African] people as missionary work. A mission from God to help civilize and Christianize the African ‘savages.’” [p. 6]

Zurara wrote a book espousing his ideas, which spread to other countries. Essentially, the “idea that Africans needed slavery in order to be fed and taught Jesus, and that it was all ordained by God, began to seep in and stick to the European cultural psyche….[T]his idea would eventually reach America.” [p. 9]

Slave trading was also an extremely lucrative business, and Reynolds recounts the various rationales concocted to explain why it was morally acceptable to enslave Africans in subsequent book sections. Religion continued to be a popular rationale, as well as the ridiculous concept that Africans were somehow subhuman and inferior to whites. Power and wealth could convince a lot of people of the rightness of those arguments. After all, if a cotton or tobacco farmer didn’t have to pay his workers, that meant more profit in his pocket.

I found Reynolds’s portrayal of various Americans even more interesting. E.g., Thomas Jefferson was a much more conflicted man than any information I’ve seen led me to believe. He owned many slaves, yet wrote the famous Declaration of Independence declaration that “all men are created equal.” However, he didn’t LIVE that concept.

W.E.B. DuBois changed his beliefs over time based on his life experiences, as did Booker T. Washington and many others. I’m going to leave those fascinating stories for readers to discover. I’m sure I can guarantee that those stories will be different from what we learned in school, IF we were even taught about them.

Reynolds also talks about certain books that were pivotal at various times in influencing the course of American slave and post-slavery history. Most are well known: Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery; W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, etc. One book that really surprised me, though, was E. R. Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes!

Finally, Reynolds says:

“I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically. How it has always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet. To keep the ball of White and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to and believe is truth.” [p. 245]

I’m happy that I was able to borrow a copy of this book. I’m an adult, consider myself well-educated, yet learned a lot that’s different from the little we learned in school, as well as MANY things that were never discussed. In my opinion and experience, equality and antiracism are not a zero-sum game. Rather, diversity and respect for others enriches all of us beyond measure.

This book is filled with far more information than I’ve mentioned here. It’s one that I plan to buy and refer to from time to time. I recommend this book for people of any age, but particularly for our teen and young adult readers, then to be followed by open discussion.


Additional information:

Reynolds includes a list of books for further reading in Stamped.

Kendi’s book is available on Amazon:


Reynolds’s book is also available:


Kendi’s latest book How to Be an Antiracist is #1 on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Nonfiction list:


Kendi’s website: https://www.ibramxkendi.com/

Reynolds’s website: https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

--Donna Rueff--

June 2020

ON GOLD MOUNTAIN by Lisa See (1995)

Years before “finding our roots” became popular, Lisa See wrote this book subtitled “The One-Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family.” While she didn’t have the plethora of online information that’s available today for such projects, she had something better: multiple family members still alive to tell her this remarkable tale of a Chinese immigrant family. Her great-grandfather and family patriarch Fong See, grandfather Eddy See, and father Richard See as well as countless other relatives in this sprawling family, both in the U.S. and China, were available in person. Lisa See was generous enough to share not only her unique family oral history along with supporting archival documentation, but also to place it within the larger context of American and Chinese history.

(NOTE: There’s some confusion involving dates and names of the early family members, so I will use the most likely information from See.)

“Gold Mountain” was the name given to the western United States, particularly California, by the Chinese after the 1848 gold strike. Rumors of gold just lying on the ground waiting to be gathered resulted in a mad dash by people from around the world seeking great riches. Chinese people were not immune to the lure of gold. By the time they arrived in California, however, most found the rumors were just that, and had to find other ways to survive.

The first Fong to arrive in the U.S. was Fong See’s father, a noted herbalist in his area. A representative from the transcontinental railroad company offered to pay his fare to America to act as doctor to the many Chinese workers employed to finish the project. Fong accepted and brought his #2 and #3 sons with him, leaving his youngest #4 son Fong See with his mother living in extreme poverty.

After the railroad was completed, the Chinese workers scattered to find other employment. There was a vast land reclamation project in Sacramento on which many Chinese worked, so the father and sons moved there to open an herbalist shop.

After about 5 years of no word or money from the father and other sons, Fong’s mother sent her mid-teen #4 son Fong See to America to find them. (A kind neighbor offered him a loan for passage fare.) Amazingly, he did! The father soon returned to his home in China with his second wife, a former prostitute, in tow.

It’s at this point that Fong See’s story of literally rags to riches starts. He stayed in Sacramento and tried to keep the herbal store going, but knew nothing about the herbs and how to use them. That business turned into making ladies’ underwear (there’s a link I won’t divulge here). Over time, Fong became reasonably successful as the new business grew.

Enter 18-year-old Ticie (Letticie) Pruett. Fully orphaned by the age of 8, she was treated like a servant by other family members. By 18, she’d had enough, left her home on an Oregon farm, and ended up in Sacramento unable to find a job. She asked Fong for work, but he refused to hire her. After watching his store for a few days, she again approached him, this time with suggestions about how to improve his business. He agreed to employ her for a trial period. I think we can agree it worked out.

Ticie was not just smart, sensible, and mature for her age. She was educated and provided the illiterate Fong with translation services and help with officials as well as suggestions for the business. Three years later, they married in the only way that a Chinese man and a Caucasian woman could at that time: they drew up a marriage contract. They couldn’t know then that they’d started a dynasty. Everything that happened later flowed from this union.

Fong See fathered 4 sons and one daughter with Ticie. (A family photo of them in the book shows what a handsome group they were!) Later they relocated to Chinatown in Los Angeles. Fong See started an import/export business (among others) that was so successful, he “became one of the richest and most prominent Chinese in the country.” [p. xvii]

After WWI, Fong See took his family on an extended trip to his old home in China where his personal life fell apart. Ticie’s main goal in life was to keep her family together. When Fong See proposed leaving one son in China for business purposes, Ticie left China with all her children while Fong See stayed on for some time. He combined work with the pleasure of spending his money on a large house, his village, and whatever else he could find to do with it on that trip.

It was a permanent split for the couple, especially when Fong See took a young wife and brought her back to America. Together they produced 7 children. It was a completely different marriage for that wife, whom he treated in the traditional Chinese way even in America.

The children of Fong See and Ticie all did very well. Most stayed in the family business, while Ray split off to become very successful in his own right. (He also never forgave his father for the split with his mother and the other marriage.) All were educated, and with each successive generation, more had advanced degrees and professions.

What I also find interesting is that the half Chinese, half Caucasian sons married Caucasian women, eventually making Lisa See 1/8 Chinese. Lisa’s grandmother Stella “was Caucasian, but she was Chinese in her heart….My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother were as Caucasian and ‘American’ as they could be, yet they all chose to marry men whose culture was completely different from their own.” [p. xx] This reminds us once again how fluid identity is.

We should remember that when those women married Chinese-American men, it was a time when such marriages were illegal or at least looked down upon by other Caucasians. Ticie’s sons went to Tijuana to get married because they couldn’t legally marry a Caucasian woman in California at that time. It’s not very long since numerous ridiculous restrictions like that were finally repealed.

In some ways this is a typical immigration story of the times: arriving in poverty, learning a new language, and working hard to raise a family and give them a better life. The Chinese, however, faced additional barriers based on racial discrimination and laws aimed directly at them.

When the Chinese railroad workers scattered to find other work, many ended up working in laundries and food businesses. They could not own land, but were allowed to be merchants. Predictably, they were scapegoated during the depression of the 1870s, accused of “taking jobs” from Caucasians, and treated abominably. (Don’t we hear the same today, just about a different group?)

See says:

“It seemed that whenever the Chinese began making a profit, the Caucasians took it from them by enacting laws—laws limiting the size of shrimping nets, laws forbidding ironing after dark…. The laws not only acted as a constant, niggling persecution, but denied this specific race the very things that brought most European immigrants to American shores.” [p. 42]

Yet this group has succeeded beyond all expectation in just a handful of generations.

See’s book is nearly 400 pages of small print, but she tells a story so compelling, unique, and filled with rich detail, the reader doesn’t want to put it down. Her writing flows so that it’s easy to read and is just plain INTERESTING. Frankly, I liked the people so much, I missed them when I finished the book.

See not only gives us a loving look at her family; she also places them within the larger historical context. Considering our growing Chinese-American population today, I think it’s important for us to learn more about their immigration experience and place in American history. I recommend this book for that purpose, but also because See tells such a good story, complete with many wonderful photos, maps, a family tree, and an account of her visit to her ancestral Chinese village!

--Donna Rueff--


Lisa See has written a number of other books, fiction but with threads of fact through them. I’ve read some of them and particularly enjoyed:
Shanghai Girls:


and China Dolls:


Carolyn See, Lisa’s mother, was also an author.

May 2020

VILLAGE SCHOOL by Miss Read (1955)

In times of stress, confusion, and disruption of our daily routines, resorting to our favorite foods, familiar places, or people can help to center us, just as a beloved book or author can. The prolific “Miss Read” wrote numerous books over a 40-year period in her two most popular series: Fairacre and Thrush Green. Village School is the first book in her Fairacre series.

“Miss Read” is the clever pen name of Mrs. Dora Jessie Saint. Like her character, she lived and taught school in small English villages. No doubt her years as a schoolmistress provided plenty of anecdotal experience to draw upon for her books and other writing about village life.

In this book, Miss Read tells the story of one school year in the village of Fairacre, which is apparently located somewhere in southern England. She is the headmistress of a 2-room schoolhouse and teaches the older village children aged about 8-11. There is another teacher for the younger children just starting school. She lives in a small house on the same property and tells us much about the flowers and vegetables grown and enjoyed there.

Miss Read takes us through the 3-term school year with its everyday learning and special events and occasions. We meet the children, their families, and the other people who keep the school going. We learn how a replacement teacher for the younger children is chosen and cheer for the new teacher finding love with a local man.

This may sound banal, but I can assure you that the reader is never bored. Miss Read has a lovely way of writing interspersed with occasional sardonic humor, but always makes clear her love of the people about whom she writes. This caring attitude is a major feature that has kept her books popular for over 60 years.

One aspect of being a schoolteacher that caught my attention is the difficulty of teaching the village children to speak in actual sentences. Miss Read explains:

“Because of…the children’s own very understandable desire to help in outside activities in an agricultural area, they do not get accustomed to seeing or hearing thought expressed in plain English. A great number of them have great difficulty in spelling, other than phonetically, for they are not readers by habit and not familiar with the look of words.” [p. 30]

Another surprise that triggered my historian senses is the fact that the logbooks were kept in the desk drawer since the founding of the village school in 1880. These logs recorded student names and attendance records, the usual and unusual events of each day, and even the number of caning strokes given to a badly-behaved student!

The logs also told a very sad story. In 1911, a husband and wife both taught in and ran the school. Their daughter Harriet Hope graduated as the star pupil with a very bright future ahead of her. She died (cause of death not recorded) in 1913. Her mother fell into a lengthy illness, and her father became an alcoholic who was shuffled off to another school in 1919. Among the stories of happiness and success lie those of tragedy.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Miss Read’s stories is her characters. Many are quirky in a variety of ways, and many are a type recognizable in our lives today. One of those is Mrs. Pringle, the school cleaner, who is very vocal in her complaints and about exactly what she will and will not do. Whenever she’s asked to perform a task she doesn’t like (e.g., starting the stoves at the onset of cold weather), she displays a noticeable limp along with accompanying complaint. As soon as someone else takes over or does the objectionable task, the limp magically eases or disappears!

Mrs. Pringle and Mrs. Willett “sing” in the church choir, which Miss Read describes:

“Behind me the voices rose and fell, Mrs. Pringle’s concentrated lowing vying with Mrs. Willett’s nasal soprano….Her voice has that penetrating and lugubrious quality found in female singers’ renderings of ‘Abide With Me’ outside public houses on Saturday nights. She has a tendency to over-emphasize the final consonants and draw out the vowels to such excruciating lengths, and all this executed with such devilish shrillness, that every nerve is set jangling.” [pp.47-48]

One final example of Miss Read’s writing prowess that keeps readers returning to her work is the description of the gift she gives her children on the day of the funeral of an elderly school board (as we would call it) member. While mourners stood around the nearby grave, the children in the classroom remembered their earlier playtime outdoors on a lovely day followed by the reading of their beloved “Wind in the Willows.”

“…[H]ere, in the classroom, sitting in a golden trance, our thoughts were of a sun-dappled stream, of willows and whiskers, of water-bubbles and boats…and I venture to think, that of all those impressions which were being made on that spring afternoon, ours, for all their being transmitted, as it were, second-hand, would be more lasting in their fresh glory. Thoughts by a graveside are too dark and deep to be sustained for any length of time. Sooner or later the hurt mind turns to the sun for healing, and this is as it should be, for otherwise, what future could any of us hope for, but madness?” [pp. 139-140]

What better gift to give a young child than the memory of a perfect day?

Over the years, I’ve read a number of Miss Read’s books in both the Fairacre and Thrush Green series. One concern that is a thread through those is the gradual demise of the English village school system. Not only was there a financial burden involved, there was also increasing difficulty finding teachers willing to live in the small villages with a general lack of amenities and an excess of nosy neighbors! During the time Miss Read wrote, consolidation of some village schools with larger schools in nearby larger towns occurred. There was a strong difference of opinion as to which delivers a better education.

I have never read a Miss Read book that disappointed me. In fact, the consistency of her writing and tone, that which captures readers and brings them to her books in the first place, is remarkable in my experience. Her work is the literary equivalent of comfort food, and each book can be enjoyed again and again.

--Donna Rueff--

April 2020

THE REVOLUTION OF THE MOON by Andrea Camilleri (2013)

Many of us know Andrea Camilleri as the creator of the beloved Inspector Montalbano series of books and films. A few years ago, he discovered a little-known fact involving the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily in 1677 that was so shocking and unusual, it grabbed his imagination. This book is based on the few known facts which Camilleri fleshed out with his own imagination to create a story just as compelling as his Montalbano series.

I was surprised to learn how many rulers Sicily had over the centuries. From 1516-1713, Spain ruled the island with the Viceroy representing the Spanish King and the Pope. The Viceroy was the agent empowered to carry out King Carlos’ wishes and assisted by six Holy Royal Councillors. Each councillor had a grandiose title, oversaw a specific area of governance, and made recommendations to the Viceroy who made the final decisions.

Marquis Don Angel de Guzman arrived in Palermo as the new Viceroy about two years before the events of which Camilleri writes. He was young and highly respected, of good character, but notable for his skeletal thinness. Over the course of the next two years, however, he ballooned into a monstrously obese man, apparently as the result of some strange and unknown disease.

One day his body simply succumbed to the overload of its organs, and he died in the middle of a meeting with the six Councillors. These men were NOT of good character, and once they realized he must be dead, decided not to report it immediately as required. They conspired with each other to enact their pet laws and decisions that enhanced their own pockets and powers while disregarding any benefit or harm to the Sicilian citizens. Their rationale was that the Viceroy had approved all their proposals by virtue of his silence.

Once they had finished their dirty work, they reported that the Viceroy had just then fainted. The doctor did notice that the Viceroy was actually dead and too cold to have just died, but did not disclose this to anyone at the time. The Viceroy’s wife, donna Eleonora, was then notified of her husband’s death.

When looking through his desk, she found a sealed envelope addressed to the Council. They opened it in her presence to find it was the dead Viceroy’s will, which stated:

“In the event of my sudden death, my beloved wife, donna Elenora di Mora…is to accede in full to the office of Viceroy of Sicily, with all the honors and burdens, duties and rights associated with said office….” [p.37]

What a shock to everyone--a woman had never held that office! In fact, the concept was so unthinkable that no one had thought to enact a specific law against the office being occupied by a woman (especially one of such exquisite beauty)!

As it happened Eleonora was a remarkably intelligent woman of excellent character and morals. After being orphaned at the age of ten, she lived and was educated in a convent before being married to the Marquis. As his wife, she learned much about the people of Palermo by exploring the area in disguise. She therefore entered her new office with a strong grasp of how the people suffered and with a good idea of the cause of much of it. The Councillors soon learned that she had an agenda opposed to their own and found ways to foil their tricks.

Sicily in 1677 was deeply poverty-stricken. It had suffered so many plagues, diseases and famines, it’s a wonder there was a population left to govern. The plight of women was especially unfortunate with marriage or prostitution the main choices, with almost no others available to them. The tax burden was extremely onerous. To use a modern popular term, “income inequality” was extreme at both ends.

Eleonora was Viceroy for only 27 days (a revolution of the moon), but she accomplished much in that short time and gained the love and support of the populace. Among her notable true achievements, she:

--cut the price of bread (a main staple of the Sicilian diet) in half by lifting the tax on wheat.

--cut the “patri onusti:” providing some tax and tariff relief to fathers of eight or more children instead of twelve or more.

--named a Magistrate of Commerce with power to decide and resolve disputes among the 72 trade guilds.

--created the law of three thirds: guild workers had to be paid one-third of the cost at the beginning of a job; one-third halfway through, and one-third at the end of the job to prevent payment of less than the amount due guild workers, or even in some cases, nothing at all.

Seizures and expropriations of illegally obtained money and property brought a great deal of income into the Treasury, with which she:

--established two shelters for women: a Conservatory for poor and orphaned virgins and other young girls forced against their wills; and the Conservatory for Reformed Magdalens (former streetwalkers and those thrown out of brothels).

--established a “Royal Dowry” for 100 girls from poor families.

--revealed that a so-called home for orphans was in fact a brothel featuring teenage girls who were visited by many of the leading citizens of Palermo; and the murders of three of the girls because they became pregnant.

--succeeded in ousting the six corrupt Councillors and replacing them with honest men.

In just 27 days Eleonora made great strides in fighting the corruption so prevalent in Palermo and bettering the lives of its citizens, particularly the women.

In the end, Eleonora was ousted as Viceroy, not for any of the work she had done or not done, but because the Viceroy represented both the Spanish King Carlos AND the Pope at that time. The snag was that she could not represent Pope Innocent XI because “a born Legate of the Pope” could never be a woman.

King Carlos was very pleased with Eleonora’s performance as Viceroy. However, he needed to appease the Pope, so made this compromise: he recalled Eleonora, but since all her actions had been for the King and not for the Pope, he decreed that all acts passed by her “shall remain in effect and cannot be abrogated, altered, questioned or mooted by [her] successor.” [p. 224]

Eleonora obeyed her King and stepped down as Viceroy. She had avenged her husband (she had since learned the details of his death and the corrupt Councillors’ actions), taken action against corruption, and greatly improved the lives of Palermo’s citizens in her short tenure.

What prompted Eleonora to make her decisions? She explains it in terms of the “elementary lesson” she learned in the convent:

“…which is that Dios he creado el hombre a su imagen y semejanza. Ever since, I have always made sure to respect todos los hombres—meaning those, naturally, who are worthy of the name—for in them the image of God is reflected. It follows, then, that if we do not help those who suffer, a quien sufre la injusticia, a quien se muere de hambre, if we do not help the weakest—and women are always the weakest—we commit not only a sin of omission, but also the much graver sin of blasphemy.” [pp. 222-223]

I won’t deprive readers of the always creative and sometimes hilarious means Eleonora used to achieve her accomplishments. Readers will laugh out loud more than once while reading this wonderful story. A good story told with Camilleri’s trademark style of gently humorous understatement with justice being served in the end worked well in the Montalbano series, and just as well in this heartwarming story.

We lost Andrea Camilleri in 2019 at the age of 93. He will be greatly missed, but he left us many wonderful stories to read and re-read, and characters to delight in and remember.

--Donna Rueff--

March 2020

A BOOKSHOP IN BERLIN by Francoise Frenkel
(Atria Books Translation December 2019)

Many booklovers regularly scour bookstores and book sales for rare books or books with special personal meaning. In 2010, an unknown person found a 1945 French memoir at a charity jumble sale in Nice, France. Translated from French, the title was No Place to Lay One’s Head. In recent years, it was translated into English, re-titled A Bookshop in Berlin, and has become a valuable addition to the literature of the Jewish experience in WWII Nazi-occupied France.

Francoise Frenkel was born in Poland in 1889. From her earliest years, she loved books and reading. She attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she remained during WWI while unable to return to her family in Poland. In 1919 she began working in a Paris bookshop where she already spent most of her time. While it started as her dream job where she gained valuable experience, it soon became her dream to open her own shop.

The question was WHERE she could open one that would have a good chance of success. After researching various cities in Europe, Berlin seemed to be the best choice: there was no existing French bookshop, and it was becoming a vibrant cultural center at that time. In 1921 Frenkel and her husband opened La Maison du Livre.

(A note about Frenkel’s husband here. She and Simon Raichenstein met as students in pre-WWI Paris. Both ran the Berlin bookshop, but Simon returned alone to Paris in 1933 under a Nansen passport for refugees and stateless people. In July 1942 Simon was arrested there, taken to the horrific French concentration camp Drancy, then sent to Auschwitz where he died within a month. It’s unknown why Frenkel did not mention him once in her memoir.

Hitler came to power in 1933, and Simon must have seen the danger of staying in Germany. Like so many others, he re-located to Paris thinking he’d be safe. I suspect his story would be just as interesting as his wife’s, but like so many stories of those times, it’s lost.)

Frenkel’s bookshop was indeed a success. It became “an almost obligatory landmark for French writers of the interwar period” visiting Berlin. One French writer noted that Frenkel “wanted her bookstore to be a centre for French thought.” [p. 240] Protection from the French embassy in Berlin proved helpful as Nazi power took hold.

As much as Frenkel loved her bookshop, the political situation finally became too dangerous for her as a Jew to stay. She left Berlin for Paris in July 1939, mere weeks before Germany invaded Poland, and was separated from her Polish family by another war. At the end of May 1940, literally days ahead of the German occupation, Frenkel fled Paris for the supposedly safe area farther south.

Eventually the German occupation spread throughout France. Despite agreements and promises, the dragnet tightened, putting Jews in ever greater danger over time. No place was safe from Nazis and French police, but Jews were also not allowed to leave (legally)! The one source of help until the Allies arrived was the French Resistance.

The bulk of the book describes in detail the measures Frenkel took not to be captured by the Germans: how to find places to hide and trustworthy people to help hide her vs. those who would betray or use her to enrich themselves; finding food; making connections to move on to the next step; obtaining forged documents that would pass inspection; long periods of waiting interspersed with moments of terror while escaping, fleeing for her life. She was a woman in her 50s at that point, not at an age where she should be living such a stressful life with an inadequate diet and chronic sleeplessness.

By the end of 1940 Frenkel had made her way to Nice, France. She was able to stay at various places in that area for 2 years. In December 1942, she was arrested when trying to cross the border into Switzerland illegally and sent to a prison in Annecy.

Surprisingly, she was acquitted at her trial, and returned to the Nice area to wait for another escape attempt. She successfully crossed into Switzerland in June 1943. She remained there for the rest of the war while writing this memoir, then returned to Nice after the war where she lived until her death in 1975.

I’ve read quite a lot of similar memoirs and histories of this period. In fact, Frenkel’s memoir has been compared to Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which I’ve also read. In my opinion, Frenkel’s memoir has an immediacy that’s lacking in other works because she wrote it while it was still fresh for her. I want to stress that this is not a depressing book, but rather penetrates deeply into the reader’s psyche precisely because of that feeling of immediacy.

It is also an uplifting, though sobering, book. Frenkel realizes that the good outcome for her in many ways was a matter of luck, although she doesn’t use that word. Being acquitted at her trial and released from prison was an unexpected and unexplainable event which probably saved her from starving to death.

Rather than feeling bitterness about her circumstances, Frenkel has the grace to express gratitude for those who helped her survive, sometimes risking their own safety. In her Forward, she says:

“I dedicate this book to the MEN AND WOMEN OF GOODWILL who, generously, with unfailing courage, opposed the will to violence and resisted to the end. Dear reader, accord them the grateful affection deserved by all such magnanimous acts!” [p. xiii]

As I often do, I saved my favorite part of this memoir until last: Frenkel’s poignant goodbye to her beloved Berlin bookshop and books.

“I was left alone with my bookshop. I watched over it through the night, thinking back on our community, our solidarity, our years of effort and exhilarating struggle….I understood how I had been able to withstand the oppressive atmosphere of those last years in Berlin…I loved my bookstore the way a woman loves, that is to say, truly….All these treasures had to be left behind….I searched my books for solace and encouragement….And suddenly I heard an infinitely delicate melody….It was the voice of the poets, their brotherly attempt to console me in my distress. They had heard their friend’s appeal and were offering their farewells to the poor bookseller, stripped of her kingdom.” [p. 28]

Frenkel lost much in her life, but never lost her love of books. In a way, her loss is our gain in the form of her memoir, rediscovered by some unknown soul by chance (or is it??) decades later, and passed along to those of us who love books as she did. The books survived long after those who would destroy them forever did not. That is as it should be.

[This edition of Frenkel’s book includes a copy of her dossier and several photos, but none of her are known to still exist.]

--Donna Rueff--

February 2020

WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST by Jason Reynolds (2015)

It’s no secret that teens and young adults today struggle with many intense issues that take a terrible toll. Drugs, broken homes, bullying in person and online, abuse of various sorts, and school shootings are just some of the issues they face daily that create a sense there’s no trust and safety anywhere. Adults need to step up to help in any way they can with what they have, whether it’s money, time, sharing a hobby, talent, or skill, or just caring. Jason Reynolds has seen the need and shares his special writing talent to help many young people.

Before I talk about the book, readers should know what an extraordinary person Reynolds is. Inspired by rap, he started writing poetry at age 9…but never read a novel from cover to cover until he was 17! Why? Because the books were BORING. He knows he’s not the only young person who “hated” reading:

“I know there are a lot — A LOT — of young people who hate reading. I know that many of these book haters are boys. I know that many of these book-hating boys, don't actually hate books, they hate boredom.”
--from https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/about

Reynolds earned a B.A. in English at the University of Maryland, moved to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, and eventually began writing books that AREN’T boring for young people. Thirteen books later he’s accumulated a list of awards too long to include here and widespread recognition for his work. Recently he was selected to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position that will give him even more opportunities to MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

When I Was the Greatest is Reynolds’ first teen/young adult book. Situated in his then-neighborhood in Brooklyn, it’s a story about an important period in the lives of 3 mid-teen boys and the people around them: Ali, Noodles, and Needles (affectionate nicknames based on characteristics). We see them grow and learn as events transpire.

Ali is 15 and lives with his mother Doris and sister Jazz. Doris is a social worker and has an additional part-time job to make ends meet. His father John is not resident, but he is present and an influence in Jazz and Ali’s lives. His “profession” is a small-time hustler which has led to incarceration for him at times. While the parents have little contact and live apart despite still loving each other, there is love in the home and a mother doing a good job of raising her children.

Noodles and Needles are brothers with an entirely different home situation. Needles is the older one, but he has Tourette’s Syndrome. Noodles is one year younger and carries the sometimes onerous burden of caretaker for his brother by default. There is no stable family unit to support them. When their father learned of Needles’ condition, he left the children with the mother, who is unable to cope or to be a real mother to them. Most of the time she’s gone, destination unknown. Needles has a lovely personality, but the syndrome can activate at any time.

The stress and responsibility of his brother’s care weigh on Noodles over time, and he does not always treat his brother well. In short, 3 of the family members are overwhelmed in some way, the 2 adults absent physically and emotionally, while Needles cannot control when his condition will activate. Reluctance to involve the authorities in their lives prevents them from getting official assistance.

The 3 boys meet and become fast friends when the brothers move into the brownstone next door to Ali and his family. Each of them has a special talent. Ali (Allen) is training to learn boxing with a man who lives down the block (hence his nickname Ali). He’s quite good despite having no wish to go pro. Noodles (Roland) has a talent for drawing comic book characters. In another environment, he’d probably have become a graphic artist. Needles is smart and quick to learn. At a time when his syndrome becomes more problematic, Ali’s mother gives him knitting needles (the source of his nickname) and yarn to occupy his hands. He never actually makes anything, but the motion of the knitting helps greatly with his behavior.

While there is a certain amount of bad behavior by some people in the neighborhood, the boys stay away from those people and places. Neighborhood personalities know they are good boys and watch out for them. The man who coaches Ali with his boxing, the barber, and others in his shop are authority figures respected by the boys. An elderly upstairs neighbor helps care for Ali and Jazz when needed. The boys also know that various people along their street watch and would report back to Doris if they saw the boys misbehave. It isn’t hard for them to stay out of trouble.

Most of the book recounts how these people cope and behave on an every-day level. Then temptation raises its ugly head. The boys have an opportunity to attend a party for young adults—a place where they’d clearly be out of their league, where there’d be alcohol, girls, and bad actors. They know it’s wrong, but arrange everything and go anyway. The mistake is taking Needles with them. The people at the party don’t know him or about his syndrome, and when it manifests, he is beaten by those bad actors who think Needles has disrespected them. Ali uses his boxing skills to attack and pull them away so he can rescue a beaten and bloodied Needles.

Of course, this disaster can’t be hidden, and John (Ali’s father) becomes involved in the aftermath. He knows the bad actors will find out who attacked them and come looking for revenge. To prevent harm to his son, John negotiates a peace deal. He gives them his car, his sole asset, to protect his son and ensure there will be no further violence. The threat is taken off the table, and that cycle has been stopped.

Although this book’s target demographic is teen/young adult, I love it and the messages Reynolds communicates in such a positive way. I also love the characters and the compassion with which they are portrayed. While his messages aren’t at all preachy, they are clear and include:

--The importance of FAMILY in a broad sense. These are not just the people we’re related to by blood, but also others whom we pull into our familial circle. We need to support and commit to them; take care of them in whatever positive way is needed. The fact that it’s not always a joy is just part of the experience.

--Young people need to find their talent, whatever it may be. Sometimes it will be obvious (like Noodles’ artistry), while other times they will need help and encouragement to find their unique ability.

--The importance of knowing they are loved must not be underestimated. Whether a young person lives in a nuclear family, an extended multi-generational family, a one-parent home, or other situation, knowing they are loved is paramount.

--Violence is not the answer to conflict. Peaceful ways to resolve issues, to stop the tit-for-tat cycle, CAN be found.

Reynolds’ books clearly touch a nerve among young people (as well as this older one). It’s impossible to know how many of them he’s “converted” to reading by fulfilling his goal of not writing boring books. Along the way, he imparts important life values in a non-preachy fashion that won’t turn young readers away. He is clearly a man who is MAKING A DIFFERENCE to his readers of any age.

--Donna Rueff--

January 2020

THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott (2019)

If you love Doctor Zhivago, you will love this book. Add the story of the Cold War era CIA espionage used to circumvent serious Soviet obstacles to publication of Boris Pasternak’s Nobel prize-winning novel, and you’ll love Prescott’s debut book even more.

Some of us may wonder why Stalin never sent Pasternak to the gulag when he sent so many other writers, musicians, and others there or even to their deaths. While no one would ever accuse Stalin of having any soft spot, he actually did like Pasternak’s pre-Zhivago poetry enough to spare him.

However, Stalin indirectly punished Pasternak by sending his mistress/muse Olga to the gulag. She was released after serving more than 3 years of her 10-year sentence, upon which their relationship resumed. Despite the miscarriage of Pasternak’s child and years of extremely hard labor and conditions, she never betrayed him.

While Doctor Zhivago has been read and loved worldwide for more than 60 years, HOW that became possible has been revealed only recently. Prescott explains:

“In 2014, thanks to [Peter] Finn and [Petra] Couvee’s petitioning, the CIA released ninety-nine memos and reports pertaining to its secret Zhivago mission. And it was seeing the declassified documents—with their blacked-out names and details—that first inspired me to fill in the blanks with fiction.” [p. 347]

So while there is a massive amount of FACT in her book, it’s classified as FICTION.

Let’s look at the facts first. Doctor Zhivago covers the time period from 1905 to WWII. Pasternak (1890-1960) was of an age and social class that enabled him to be fully aware of events of that tumultuous period in Russia. He finished the book in 1956, but no Soviet publisher dared to publish it. Word about this reputed masterpiece spread throughout the literary world, and plots abounded as to how to get a copy of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union without endangering Pasternak.

The first publisher to be successful was the Italian Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who accepted the manuscript from Pasternak’s own hands and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. It was first published just to get it out into the world, while many others were feverishly working to translate it into various languages.

The CIA obtained an Italian copy with the intent of helping to flood the market with a translation. However, it was decided for political reasons to disguise the true origin of those copies which were released via clandestine means to make it appear other countries were the source.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting parts of this story is WHY the CIA had such interest in flooding the market with this book with the intent of getting it into the hands of Soviet citizens. Prescott explains:

“They had their satellites [referring to the launch of Sputnik, making the Soviet Union first in the space race], but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons—that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had doubled down on soft-propaganda warfare—using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought—how the Red State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means… The Agency became a bit of a book club with a black budget… [Zhivago] was the mission that would change everything.” [pp. 130-131]

Doctor Zhivago…was written by the Soviet’s most famous living writer, Boris Pasternak, and banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October Revolution and its so-called subversive nature… It had ‘great propaganda value’ for its ‘passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.’” [p. 131; with quote from CIA internal memo]

The FICTION aspect of Prescott’s book focuses almost entirely on women of the CIA. There is certainly some truth to those characters, and Prescott has helped round them out. The women include a group of typists and two trained agents: Irina and Sally. The relationship between the latter two women evolves throughout the book and blossoms into something entirely different… but I won’t spoil it for our readers.

The one male agent who gets the most attention in the book is Teddy Helms. He describes his intent and motives:

“The Agency wanted to stack its ranks with intellectuals—those who believed in the long game of changing people’s ideology over time. And they believed books could do it. I believed books could do it. That was my job: to designate books for exploitation and help carry out their covert dissemination. It was my job to secure books that made the Soviets look bad: books they banned, books that criticized the system, books that made the United States look like a shining beacon. I wanted them to take a good hard look at a system that had allowed the State to kill off any writer, any intellectual… they disagreed with… I wanted to do it without any fingerprints.” [p. 197]

I found this book hard to put down. Prescott shed light on events that show us how just one work of art can change the world in ways never imagined. It’s well-written, not difficult to read and understand, and in my opinion, should be on the Best Books of 2019 list.

For anyone who’s interested in reading more about these events, Prescott has included a list of her sources in an informal bibliography. This is her debut offering, and frankly, I can hardly wait for her next book!

--Donna Rueff--

December 2019

On the Bright Side by Hendrik Groen (2017)

Trigger warning: if you feel offended by such words as “old,” “geezer,” “coot,” and “codger,” you may be excused from reading this blog and the book under discussion. (Thanks to Rolynn Anderson for the “trigger warning” reminder.) If you decide to take a chance, you’ll find that it’s more sweet, wise, and darkly funny than bitter, and it’s all about ATTITUDE.

Hendrik Groen’s first published book is The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen covering the year 2013. On the Bright Side continues that format for 2015. These are not REAL diaries, nor is Groen the author’s REAL name. In fact, he has been compared to Elena Ferrante for this reason: no one knows the true identity of either person! However, I can assure readers that this mystery in no way detracts from the excellence of their writing and stories.

Groen is an 85-year-old “inmate,” as he calls it, of a retirement home in Amsterdam. We learn his back story slowly: he was a primary school headmaster for most of his career; his only child drowned when she was 4; his wife is in a psychiatric institution; he arrived at the retirement home several years earlier because of some health deterioration; and he’s still a snappy dresser. He’s not as mobile as when younger, although he notes that compared to the walking speed of many of the residents, he’s “the cheetah of the geriatric world.” [p. 61] A scooter enables him to enjoy frequent outings, sometimes with a friend with a souped-up scooter. Even elderly men have a need for speed.

Other residents of the home have varying degrees of mobility as well as a wide range of ailments. For those in better health, the worst problem is boredom. They don’t work, food is prepared for them, there’s no house and yard upkeep…one can’t watch TV and sleep ALL the time!

Gradually Groen formed friendships with other like-minded residents. Six of them formed the Old But Not Dead Club (OBNDC), later expanded to 8 members and kept exclusive. This way members could legitimately spend most of their social time with compatible and trusted people as well as conspire and plot ways to get around management’s ridiculous rules. However, the main objective of the OBNDC was to organize group outings such as restaurant meals and short trips to take advantage of what Amsterdam has to offer. Looking forward to outings was nearly as good for the members as actually experiencing them.

The OBNDC was founded on specific guidelines: “…there’s to be no whining, but…we laugh a lot about our various miseries. It makes living with the restrictions brought on by the body’s decrepitude a great deal easier.” [p. 16] So does sharing good times with compatible people.

Groen doesn’t shy away from the less positive aspects of aging and group living in a retirement home. Aside from the obvious issues of an aging body and mind, just bringing together diverse people with their tastes and quirky personalities in one place often can be virtually combustible. Groen and other OBNDC members had no patience for childish behavior, bullying, playing dirty tricks on other residents, rudeness, temper tantrums, and incessant complaining. Finally exhausted by the latter, they resorted to placing a sign on a common room table: you are kindly requested not to talk about ailments, organs, or death at this table.

As if awaiting a visit from Death wasn’t stressful enough, there was uncertainty about how long residents would have a place to live. Cutbacks by the government kept chipping away at benefits, and the owners of their home and others did the same to cut costs. As more homes closed, more people who should have been in a residence home were forced to stay in their own homes longer than they should for their safety and health. This is a real problem in many nations, especially as the post-WWII population boom ages.

Groen also shows the impact of the death of close friends in the home on those left behind. Using the slow deterioration and finally death of Groen’s close friend Evert as a sort of tutorial is oddly positive (I know that sounds strange).

If I’ve given the impression that this is a depressing book about depressing topics, that’s completely untrue. The reader grows to care about the characters, what happens to them, and how they face the adversities of aging. Groen notes that with each new setback to our body or mind, humans have a strange ability to adapt, to incorporate the behavior needed to cope with the new issue and move on.

There is also a lot of laugh-out-loud humor in both of Groen’s “diaries.” Mrs. Schansleh had a habit of mixing proverbs and idioms. “They make a mountain out of every elephant in the china shop” was her response about an Iraqi bombing. Personally, I’d keep talking to her just to see what gem she’d come up with next!

The frequency and danger of falls among the elderly can result in broken brittle bones, with a hip fracture being the worst. Groen discusses a (faux?) newspaper article describing the hip-airbag equipped with sensors to detect a fall happening and inflate. After pointing out the pros and cons of such an airbag, he thinks it could be useful for “tipsy café patrons. I would suggest making it absolutely mandatory for all epileptic geriatric pub-crawlers.” [p. 61] Obviously the man has way too much time on his hands!

Readers grow so fond of Groen’s cast of characters and shenanigans, we hate to see the end of the book. When will we have another, we ask while demanding MORE?

“In order to fill the looming emptiness and keep the mind in shape, I have set myself a new challenge: in January I am starting on a novel…about two elderly men. After all, old men are my specialty. They will inevitably resemble Evert and Hendrik somewhat. I’ll probably name them Ahrend and Nico, after my two grandfathers. Unavoidable circumstances won’t make things easy for Ahrend and Nico, but that only makes life more worth living.” [p. 411]

I don’t know if he’s making a promise or a threat, but whatever “Hendrik Groen” writes, I’ll read!

Groen leaves the reader with these words:

“A new year—how you get through it is up to you, Groen; life doesn’t come with training wheels. Get this show on the road. And keep looking on the bright side.” [p. 440]

NO WHINING sounds to me like the perfect New Year’s resolution!!

--Donna Rueff--

November 2019

THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER by Shaun Bythell (2017)

Let’s be honest: we bibliophiles can be a bit eccentric. We love to be surrounded by books, often to a point of excess that non-bibliophiles don’t understand. Many of us take a book with us wherever we go in case we have a short wait here and there to read a few more pages. It’s not surprising, then, that many of us harbor a fantasy of owning an entire bookstore with space for as many books as we want without anyone hounding us to curtail our supply. What is it REALLY like to OWN a book shop?

Shaun Bythell purchased The Bookshop, the largest second-hand book shop in Wigtown, Scotland, in November 2001. The package included 100,000 second-hand volumes, a spacious house for the books with plenty of living space above it, even a yard with garden space, all near the ocean in the small picturesque town. He was an avid reader who immerses himself in whatever he’s reading. It seemed like an ideal situation.

Bythell’s diary from 2014 reveals that dealing with books from the other (business) side of the counter is certainly not as romantic or fun as one might have dreamed. He’s also not the only person to have written about his experiences. In fact, he begins each month’s entries with a quote from George Orwell’s essay “Bookshop Memories.” Bythell found that his own experiences ring as true today as Orwell’s did in 1936.

The truth is that a second-hand bookseller has a lot less time to ENJOY his stock than he imagined. In fact, it requires many long NON-READING hours just to keep the business solvent.

The most important task is acquiring and pricing books before they can even go on the shelf for sale. Bythell accepts some books that people bring in to the store. He also drives to homes if people have entire libraries of which they need to dispose, usually accumulated by a dead relative. He might have thousands of books to sort through (often covered in dust and cat hair), then will make an offer for the books that are appropriate for his shop. He boxes the selections, transports them in his van to his shop, sorts, unpacks, prices, and shelves them in the correct section. Imagine doing that with thousands of boxes of books year after year. The physical labor takes a toll on one’s body.

Another source of his stock is estate auctions. Knowledge of publishers, authors, various editions of rare books, and other pertinent information is necessary to determine whether a certain book is rare or just a later edition worth very little. Truly rare books do appear, but not often.

The bookseller must know his clientele and what they want and will buy. That takes time to learn, as well as contact with people. One example that baffled me about Bythell’s shop is that books about the railway are popular and sell readily. The railway? I guess you’d have to live in the U.K. to understand that one.

The bookseller also must have a wide enough knowledge of genres and authors to be able to answer clients’ questions about similar books. He must know their preferences during the acquisition process, too. Although Bythell personally prefers fiction over non-fiction, he has found in his shop that “…the majority of fiction is still bought by women, while men rarely buy anything other than non-fiction….” [p. 89] Good to know when buying books for the shop!

One major change in the book industry since Bythell bought the shop in 2001 is the growth of online book purchasing. He wasn’t keen on dealing with eBay and Amazon, but knew it was inevitable if he intended to remain solvent. Online orders are now a significant part of his business, but they require still more work hours on the business end.

Of course, there are also the chores that go along with any business: accounting, taxes, general bureaucratic paperwork, hiring assistants, etc. The bottom line is that it takes a serious amount of non-reading time to keep a bookshop afloat (barely at times), keep one’s sanity, and still carve out a little time to READ, which was what this was all about in the first place!

Bythell’s diary is a wonderful read for book lovers. I like his entries about people, especially his employee Nicky, which are often hilarious. He likes to observe people who come to the shop bringing their quirks with them. They run the gamut from being real jerks to those who are happy to find their choice available. Sometimes he finds a new friend.

One “type” that surprised him and me is people who come to the shop declaring they are real “book people” and like to show off their literary knowledge, then leave without buying anything! Those same people usually leave behind a scattered mass of books requiring re-shelving.

Wigtown has experienced a resurgence of businesses (including more book shops) and an influx of people since Bythell opened his shop. Those people are also interesting and varied. Many have good ideas about ways to promote the town and create events that will bring in visitors. There has been some recent publicity, such as this article about another shop near The Bookshop that has a unique idea:


Bythell’s diary has been followed by the August 2019 release of Confessions of a Bookseller. Amazon says:

The Diary of a Bookseller (soon to be a major TV series) introduced us to the joys and frustrations of life lived in books. Sardonic and sympathetic in equal measure, Confessions of a Bookseller will reunite readers with the characters they've come to know and love.”

Here’s The Bookshop’s website:


Bythell created another revenue stream by starting an unusual book club:


As they say, you never know what you’ll get.

What do you think? If you’re one of the people who thought owning a book shop could be your dream job and have no wish to become wealthy, do you still think so? Or do you prefer to let people like Bythell do the actual work and stick to reading about their adventures?

--Donna Rueff--

October 2019

THE CHICAGO RACE RIOTS: JULY 1919 by Carl Sandburg (2013)

In my February 2019 blog, I talked a bit about the civil unrest that arose in the U.S. in the years immediately following WWI. That incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma, took place in 1921, but there were dozens of other riots and attacks that occurred throughout the country from the late winter to early autumn of 1919. That period became known as the “Red Summer,” and this book is a reprint of a collection of newspaper reports written during that period by Carl Sandburg for the “Chicago Daily News.”

Wait, you say (as I did when I found this book): wasn’t Carl Sandburg a POET?? The one we studied in school, the one who wrote the famous poem “Chicago,” the “city of the big shoulders?” Yes indeed, it’s the same man.

What we probably never knew about Sandburg is that he held many jobs before he became a renowned American poet. He was a “traveling salesman of stereoscopic photographs;” became involved in the socialist movement; turned to lecturing on a wide variety of topics, and later included singing and playing guitar in his appearances. This nomadic period of his life taught him about American and African-American life and culture. His personal observations and experiences enriched his understanding of events when he reported on them for the “Chicago Daily News.”

During the Red Summer, dozens of attacks, mostly by whites, were perpetrated against blacks around the U.S. In some cases, but not all, blacks fought back. Soldiers returning from WWI battlefields sometimes suffered from what we now call PTSD; some were gassed in the trenches. They returned home to find competition for jobs, housing, and services. In some northern cities like Chicago, they also encountered an influx of blacks fleeing the prejudice, oppression, lack of opportunities, and lynching threats and acts prevalent in southern states. During the war, jobs were plentiful for them, but not so much after the end of the war when soldiers were returning.

The southern black population began the decades-long Great Migration north especially to Chicago, putting a severe strain on existing housing because expansion to other areas was limited. Whites believed that their property values would decrease if blacks moved into or near their areas, so tried to keep blacks confined to their existing neighborhoods. Sandburg found that a fairly common practice was to buy property at a low price, then raise rents, thereby forcing blacks to pay higher than normal rent. More of a black family’s budget had to be spent on rent.

Many blacks had learned job skills in the military that they were able to put to use when they returned home. Proving they could do the work helped others think of them more highly, as well as create a more stable family life. The stockyards were especially lucrative places to work, as well as one of the places where most whites and blacks worked easily together. Union membership also helped ease white-black relations.

Then as now, the consensus was that economic equality was the most important right. One labor organizer said, “All we demand is an open door.” The prevailing theory was that “when economic equality of the races is admitted, then the social, housing, real estate, transportation or educational phases are not difficult.” [p. 57]

The event that ignited the July 27 riot, however, was not related to any of the above issues, but rather a social one. A black youth swimming in Lake Michigan swam into an area normally used by whites, who then stoned and drowned him. The police, who were largely ethnic Irish, refused to do anything about the attack, and young black men retaliated with violence. Gangs of both whites (mainly Irish) and blacks battled for 13 days, finally ending conflict when Illinois authorities called in 7 militia regiments.

In addition to hundreds of dead and injured, many black homes and businesses were destroyed by white mobs. To me, the message being sent to blacks was to “stay in their place” and not forget it, betraying simmering white (especially Irish) social anxiety. (In the Tulsa violence two year later, the message was that blacks were TOO successful and needed to be taken down a few notches.)

Sandburg also reported on social aspects of the black community. For example, there was a push by those who had lived in Chicago longer to assist newcomers adjust their behavior to the urban environment. They urged such habits as cleanliness, wearing nice clothes and shoes in public (no sleepwear, curlers, or going barefoot), not throwing garbage off the front stoop like they did “down in Alabam’.” Newcomers were told that every mistake or good thing they did reflected on the entire group. He also conveyed the efforts to create community in neighborhood parks, churches, schools, and organizations.

The advantage of a primary source like this collection of articles is that it provides on-the-spot reporting of events. We readers can see them through his eyes, his thoughts and reactions. I had no idea that Sandburg had been a reporter, much less that he had been present for the worst race riot of the Red Summer in the city he loved. I found it valuable and interesting to learn about it, not just from some dry history written decades later, but from someone who could put events in their current context.

One additional note: Walter Lippmann wrote an Introductory Note to the original 1919 edition which is included in this 2013 edition. Lippmann was a famous journalist of the time, regarded by some as the “most influential journalist” of the 20th century, as well as winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. In other words, people listened to and paid attention to what he said.

Lippmann characterized “the race problem” as “a by-product of our planless, disordered, bedraggled, drifting democracy.” [p. v] “Hence the Negro who desires to be an imitation white man. Hence again the determination to suppress the Negro who attempts to imitate the white man.” Given the limits that currently exist, “the ideal would seem to lie in what might be called race parallelism.” This certainly sounds like the “separate but equal” doctrine (still in effect at that time), but it’s clear he doesn’t see that as a practical way forward. He continues:

“Pride of race will come to the Negro when a dark skin is no longer associated with poverty, ignorance, misery, terror and insult. When this pride arises, every white man in America will be the happier for it.” [p. vi]

The tone of his Note is one of deep frustration. I picture him throwing up his hands at his inability to find a solution and way forward concerning “the race problem.” In some ways, we’ve come far in this past century. In other ways, we have not.

—Donna Rueff—

September 2019

MEET ME IN MONACO by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (July 2019)

I admit I have a deep affection for southern France. Any book about Provence with all its flowers, scenery, food, history and culture along with its temperate climate on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea interests me. Adding a bit of nostalgia to the mix adds to the enjoyment. This book is just the thing for a lazy end-of-summer afternoon.

The book’s subtitle is “A Novel of Princess Grace’s Royal Wedding.” Grace Kelly was perhaps the most popular and beloved American actress of the mid-1950s, a “girl next door” type. Her “fairy tale” courtship by and marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco is the core of this story around which other characters and events revolve.

The main female character is Sophie Duval. She inherited a perfume-creating business from her father, who taught her everything he knew about the art and science of it so she could continue it after he died. Happily, her heart and abilities (her “nose”) enabled her to pour everything she had into the business. It was her life.

Sophie owned property for growing flowers for perfume-making at the family home in Grasse, the world’s perfume capital. She also owned a retail shop and apartment in Cannes. When we meet her, she’s having dire financial issues and is being courted by greedy buyers who want those valuable properties. She is also being pressured to sell by a wealthy boyfriend (who eventually betrays her) and her alcoholic mother, neither of whom has her best interests in mind. Both are critical of her no matter what she does, and all Sophie wants to do is to create perfumes.

James Henderson is a British photographer sent to Cannes to cover the initial meeting of Kelly and Rainier. The world is hungry for any photos of Kelly, who is endlessly besieged by what we call “paparazzi” today. Henderson is more of an artistic photographer, but also needs to earn a living, so takes job assignments like covering the Kelly-Rainier meeting and whatever follows. He is the divorced dad of Emily, who is the most important person in his life and lives in England.

One day Kelly randomly enters Sophie’s shop in Cannes hoping to elude photographers who are chasing her, so Sophie hides her. Henderson was following Kelly and enters the shop, but he decides to accept Sophie’s lie that she’s not there.

In this encounter, a spark is struck between Sophie and Henderson. Over the next year they have little contact, but neither can forget the other. They realize something special is developing between them, but circumstances keep them apart until the royal wedding in April 1956. By then they realize they love each other, but once again circumstances pull Henderson back to England. I won’t disclose how this relationship turns out except to say that Kelly had a hand in bringing them together both in life and in death.

After Henderson leaves Sophie’s shop in 1955, she discovers that her mysterious hider is Grace Kelly. The kindness Sophie showed in helping her leads Kelly to inquire about her products. She is so impressed that she requests a custom fragrance for her sister, then for others. Kelly asks several companies to send samples of their perfumes specially designed for the wedding, then shocks the world by choosing Sophie’s “Coeur de Princesse” creation over those of well-known brands. The publicity and quality of the product eventually allow Sophie to solve her financial problems and not have to sell off her land and assets. Repayment for the simple act of protecting Kelly earned Sophie her friendship and her business, giving Sophie back her life.

Two things about this book make it stand out. The authors re-create the mania of that year in our history, from the initial meeting of Kelly and Rainier through the wedding. We learn of the insatiability of the public for ANY news of their queen of the screen and princess-to-be. Every newspaper, magazine, and tabloid sent photographers and other personnel to capture every possible photo, gossip tidbit, and occasional fact about their prey, no matter what it took or how invasive they had to be. There was so much money to be made, bosses were ruthless in their demands. That was certainly the ugly side of these events.

On the other side, the authors describe the beauty of the staged events. Kelly’s wardrobe, and especially her wedding attire for both the civil and church weddings, was nothing short of spectacular. Her gown for the church ceremony was created in Hollywood, so there was a cinematic aspect to the event which included decoration of various venues. The authors’ descriptions of it all capture the reader’s imagination. I suspect that millions of young girls dreamt of finding THEIR prince and having such a wedding. I also suspect more than a few married women lived vicariously through Kelly for awhile. The reality is that the fairy tale usually doesn’t extend very long after the wedding.

However, I’ve saved the best for last. The second thing that makes this book stand out is its wealth of information about the art of creating perfumes. Sophie’s father taught her several lessons:

--"To be a parfumeur is to be a detective.” Where does the scent take you? [p. 5, LP edition]

--"To be a parfumeur is to be a psychologist…. He said that everyone had deeply hidden insecurities, and that many people wished to be something more than they are. Our job… was to uncover what that something more was and to make it for them.” [p. 14]

--"To be a parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories. Every scent will remind you of something or someone.” [p. 18] (Perfume and music have this effect in common.)

Sophie’s father also taught her about the 3 stages of a perfume:

--Head notes are the first impression of a scent;

--Heart notes follow and are the heart of the perfume;

--Base notes are slow to diffuse and last the longest.

I’m sure most people have never thought in such depth or have knowledge about scents and perfumes as they are discussed in this book. I find it an intriguing topic and know I’ll think about scents differently from now on. This book may trigger interest in the topic for other readers, too.

The idea that Kelly lived a fairy-tale life was part of the hype promoted by the media and perhaps believed—or at least wished for her—by her fans. Kelly herself thought that the very idea was a fairy tale. She was a very strong woman who counseled Sophie to follow her heart and believed that “women can do anything they decide to do.” [p. 380] We can be sure that Kelly followed her own advice, and in a strange way, she enabled Sophie to do the same.

—Donna Rueff—

August 2019

THE RED ADDRESS BOOK by Sofia Lundberg
English Translation 2019

On her tenth birthday in 1928, Doris Alm’s bibliophile father gave her a red leather address book. “You can collect all your friends in it.” Pappa smiled. “Everyone you meet during your life. In all the exciting places you’ll visit. So you don’t forget.” (p. 7) That is exactly what Doris did.

We meet Doris at the age of 96 using the book for a sort of end-of-life review. She is still living alone in her Swedish home with a bit of help from a caregiver, but she knows that this could change at any time—and it does. As she reviews her address book, she notes that there are almost no names remaining that she HASN’T marked “dead.”

The person still alive to whom she is closest is her grand-niece Jenny, her dead sister’s granddaughter who is married with 3 children and lives in San Francisco. They keep in touch via Skype, and it’s clear that the love between them is incredibly deep despite the physical and age distances between them. While Doris is realistic and at peace about her impending death, Jenny can’t bear to think of life without Doris.

Doris has decided that she wants to give Jenny her memories “so they don’t just disappear.” Jenny in turn wonders what SHE will remember because in her opinion, her life lacks excitement. Doris replies: “It’s never exciting when you’re in the middle of it. It’s just difficult. The nuance becomes visible only much later.” (p. 253) So true!

Using the book as a reminder of the people and places who have passed through her life, Doris writes about them and her experiences, creating a record that Jenny can keep. Before she can completely finish that work, she experiences a fall in her home. The injury puts her in the hospital requiring surgery and subsequent care. In a panic, Jenny and her 2-year-old daughter fly to be with Doris in Sweden. While staying in Doris’s home when she’s not at the hospital, Jenny discovers the written memories Doris prepared for her, as well as photos and letters that reveal more about Doris.

We learn that Doris’s father died not long after giving her the address book, devastating the family finances. Her desperate mother sent her into service at the age of 13 in the home of Dominique Serafin, where she came into contact with many society and artistic people. There she formed a platonic friendship with Gosta Nilsson, a struggling painter whose work gained greatly in value only after his death. This friendship continued for decades until his death, and later in her life, they lived together for many years. That period was one of refuge for Doris.

However, many other traumatic events occurred between meeting Gosta and living with him. Serafin decided to move to Paris not long after Doris went into service and took Doris with her. One day while walking on the street, she was accosted by a man who was stunned by her beauty and hired her as a live manikin in a Paris fashion house. This gave Doris a career, independence and a decent income of her own for several years in her teens.

While she was modeling, she met Allan by chance, the love of her life. Their months together in Paris were the happiest of her life…until he disappeared without explanation. Doris was devastated. A letter from Allan arrived one year later asking her to come to America where he had gone, and she and her sister went to join him. However, because of the mail delay, Allan hadn’t heard from Doris and thought she didn’t want to join him. He had married someone else in the interim and was on his way back to Europe. They had only a few hours and overnight together. She stayed in America, and her sister married an American of Swedish heritage. The sister died leaving a newborn girl who became Jenny’s mother.

Doris later decided she had to get to Europe by any way possible, despite the danger of the war. She posed as a male and took a cook’s job on an ammunition ship headed to England. (She was raped nightly and impregnated by the man who got the job for her. The baby did not survive, nor did she want it.) As the ship neared the English coast, the Germans attacked it. She abandoned ship before it exploded and was rescued, barely alive, by a fisherman. She stayed with him in England until she re-established contact with Gosta and moved back to Sweden.

Over the years, she sometimes traveled to America to deal with her sister’s daughter Elise, who became a heroin addict. Elise’s daughter was Jenny, and she didn’t have a very stable childhood. It was during those periodic visits that Jenny and Doris formed their deep and loving bond.

The life Doris wished for every day of her life—being married to Allan for many decades and raising the children they’d dreamed of in Paris—stayed with her. Instead, Doris lived an alternate life. It was one that included love in various forms…but not the love of her life (Allan) due to a variety of circumstances. Yet she never became bitter. She tells Jenny:

“Love always finds a way…if it’s meant to be. It’s fate that guides us, I’ve always believed that. He probably died, he must have, but oddly enough it hasn’t ever felt that way. He’s always been by my side. In a strange way, I’ve often felt his presence… Everyone has a love they never get over, Jenny. It’s normal… An unfinished love, one that never got a proper ending. Everyone does. Someone who dug deep into your heart and stayed there… There’s nothing as perfect as lost love.” (pp. 206-207)

These are wise words indeed for a young author to express in her first novel. Although I can’t verify it, I strongly suspect that Lundberg resembles the Jenny character in this book. I don’t think she could write Doris’s character as truly as she does without having been close to a woman of advanced age.

Of course you want to know if Allan and Doris find each other again in this life. I’ll not deny our readers the gift of discovering the answer and ending.

One might think that all the death and strife and separation from families and loved ones in the book would be depressing, but that is far from true. This book is a rare treasure, uplifting, going straight to the reader’s heart. It’s one you’ll want to keep and read again. Ultimately, we can all ask ourselves the question at the book’s end:

“Did you love enough?”

--Donna Rueff--

A PASSING TO NOTE: Andrea Camilleri, author of the beloved Sicilian Inspector Montalbano series, passed away on July 17, 2019, at the age of 93. He started writing the popular series at the age of 69! Readers can always count on a good story along with laugh-out-loud humor that the translator is able to convey to English readers. He leaves us over 20 novels with the Montalbano character, as well as a TV series and DVD’s to continue to enjoy. Several years ago, he left the last Montalbano story with his publisher to be released after his death. Soon we’ll know his vision of what finally happens to our dear Insp. Salvo Montalbano.


July 2019

CHICKEN EVERY SUNDAY by Rosemary Taylor (1943)
A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith (1943)

In my June blog, we learned about “stories that helped us win World War II” distributed to soldiers in the form of Armed Services Editions (ASE) books. Of all the ASE books, Chicken Every Sunday and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were among the most beloved. I read both to discover what it was about these stories that captured the hearts of so many young soldiers far from home and living in danger; what it was that in some cases literally helped them get through the war experience.

Taylor’s book recounts the story of her family as she grew up. Their life began in Phoenix, Arizona, then continued in Tucson as that city was just starting to grow and providing rich opportunities for business. Taylor’s dad was by nature a promoter, always seeing new opportunities to make money in a wide variety of enterprises of various levels of risk, from a laundry to land to a gold mine. He started working as a young boy and never stopped. He just wasn’t a man who could work at a desk job in an office with defined hours.

Taylor’s mother was born in Virginia after the Civil War into a genteel but impoverished family. She learned to find a creative use for everything, never to throw anything away and to use every penny. As a woman whose primary concern was security for her family, she turned to one of the few avenues of earning an income available to her: she took in boarders. Hence the subtitle of Taylor’s book: My Life with Mother’s Boarders. She made sure she always had money stashed away from her husband and set up their home to accommodate boarders.

Happily, this worked wonderfully well for everyone. Tucson was booming, teeming with incoming people who needed a clean and comfortable place to live. The Taylor household provided a home-like atmosphere, and perhaps best of all, plenty of delicious, healthy food for all provided by Taylor’s mother, a natural cook.

Happily for us readers, there’s also no lack of interesting stories and hijinks involving the boarders. Taylor’s mother was a dynamo, always thinking creatively of the best way to house and feed her boarders, increase her income, and make life better for her family. Over the years, the family did very well in their endeavors and led a comfortable, busy, but never boring, life. No one was afraid of hard work, and it paid off for them all. They were an American success story, making it possible for their children to have a better life and more education than they’d had.

Taylor tells her story in a way that endears the characters to the reader. We leave the book wanting more, recognizing many characters as being like people in our own lives, and knowing we’ll return to read about them often in coming years.

Soldiers fighting in the war loved this book. One first lieutenant stationed in New Guinea wrote to Taylor that her book “gave them ‘the refreshing sense that the way of life which we have temporarily left behind is a rich and delightful heritage that awaits our return.’” Another soldier in China “compared reading the book to taking a leave. ‘It took me home for a couple of hours. It alleviated my homesickness. I really forgot about the war, and laughed and lived for a little while back in that marvelous house with all those wonderful people.’” [p. 109, When Books Went to War.]

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was another ASE book beloved by many soldiers, and it’s still quite widely read today. This is the story of a family living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn starting at the beginning of the 20th century and told by the daughter, Francie Nolan. Although Brooklyn was an area of many new immigrants, the Nolan family was not new to the U.S.

Francie’s parents married very young. Within two years, they had two children: Francie and her brother Neeley. (A sister was born more than a decade later.) It didn’t take long for the reality of their situation to become apparent. The parents did not have the job skills and prospects to support their family of four, and of course there was the child care issue for the mother. The father was an attractive man who loved to have fun and was a talented singer. But he worked only sporadically, usually as a singing waiter, and became an alcoholic who died while the children were still young. Francie’s mother realized she needed to be the practical-minded head of the family and took whatever menial jobs she could find.

Smith paints a vivid portrait of urban poverty in Francie’s early years. Children found ways to earn even a penny or nickel here and there to contribute to the family. Even so, there were times when there was not enough food, or they couldn’t afford enough coal for heat, or could afford only one pair of shoes which they quickly outgrew or had only one set of clothes for school.

The one thing they did have was their mother’s interesting extended family who could often help a bit. Francie loved to read and write from an early age. Her illiterate grandmother instilled the importance of education which Francie absorbed: she eventually was able to go to college. By that time, the family situation also improved with her mother’s remarriage to a sober, responsible man.

The most remarkable character in the book is Francie’s mother. Circumstances such as those in which she unexpectedly found herself by the age of 20 can make or break people. She found her inner strength, while the father broke. Even when working to the point of exhaustion to house and feed her family, she managed to instill good values in her children and did what she could to point them to a better life.

In those times, many families found themselves living hand to mouth. Many soldiers could relate to this story and the characters in it, so like their own. Betty Smith received thousands of letters from soldiers stationed all over the world thanking her for her story. More than one man recounted how he’d been feeling emotionally numbed by so much violence and death around him, but had started to feel again, to come back to life, after reading (and re-reading) her book.

The importance to the war effort of just these two wonderful books, not to mention the entire ASE library, cannot be discounted. The morale of the troops was an important component to the prosecution of and success in winning the war. Soldiers had to keep present in their minds WHY they were risking their lives in such an inhuman endeavor. In World War II, it was clear what they were fighting AGAINST. The ASE books, and these two in particular, helped them remember what they were fighting FOR: their loved ones, their country, and their aspirations for a better life and future after they won this war.

--Donna Rueff--

June 2019


This month’s selection, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning (2015) is offered in memory of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. While memory of this aspect of the war has dimmed over the intervening decades, the impact of books on American culture remains. This is the true story of the impact of the Armed Services Editions (ASE) books on the democratization of literature in American culture, described as “the most significant project in publishing history.” [p. 74]

Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor on January 30, 1933. Germany had never recovered from World War I and the aftermath. Germans were hungry to regain their place in European culture and politics. Hitler had devised a comprehensive plan which he formulated during the 1920s and detailed in his book Mein Kampf. He, like many Germans, blamed Germany’s loss of the war and subsequent lengthy humiliation on betrayal by certain parties. Hitler wanted Germany to rise to power again and to extend its power over other European countries to be used as “Lebensraum” for an increased German population.

Hitler started remaking Germany immediately upon taking office. A failed artist, he started trying to win the hearts and minds of Germans by focusing on all aspects of culture. By micromanaging the purging of art, music, literature, etc. of anything he considered “not German,” and artfully using radio and films to spread propaganda, he worked tirelessly to re-instill pride in being German.

In May 1933, a ceremonial burning of many thousands of books took place in Berlin and other towns throughout Germany. Oddly enough, the people most up in arms AND able to take action in response to this “bibliocaust” were American librarians!

As librarians and other Americans learned of the events in Germany via German radio propaganda and the American media, the American Library Association (ALA) became a strong advocate of trying “to stop Hitler from succeeding in his war of ideas against the United States.” [p. 15]

The U.S. did not have a standing army, as well as no intention of entering the war, but Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act in September 1940 requiring registration for military service. It seemed a wise choice to be able to expedite troop deployment if it became necessary.

Building an army (and navy) had to start from scratch: building bases and weapons training took much time and effort. Most bases were located in places without amenities, and the young men had nothing to do to relieve boredom, no way to blow off steam, in their hours off work. A drive for book donations to send to these bases-to-be started, and Americans responded with extreme generosity.

When the U.S. entered the war, these soldiers and sailors took the donated hardback books with them to the battlefields if and when possible, but the extra weight and room the books required in their already overloaded backpacks was a drawback. Manning’s book describes the groups and people who brainstormed how to solve this problem.

The solution was overseen by the Council on Books in Wartime. Paper rationing played a significant part in the final decision to publish small paperbacks weighing just a few ounces that could be carried in uniform pockets. These books were bound on the short side with print formatted in two columns on each page to maximize paper usage while remaining readable. Publishers mobilized to print the books, while government entities cooperated & supported the project. The War Book Panel took charge of selecting a wide range of books to be printed in ASE format. Transportation to get the books to all the places where troops were stationed or fighting was a monumental task, but they did it.

There was virtually no censorship, although the focus was on books that would elevate the spirit and mind, remind the troops of home, give respite and an escape from the horror of battle, and keep present in their minds why and what they were fighting against and fighting for. The books gave the troops a virtual place to go to refresh their minds and spirits. It’s impossible to calculate their true effect on morale, but many soldiers wrote letters to the authors of books they particularly enjoyed. Many letters survive in the archives and reveal the gratitude with which the troops received the ASE books and the difference the books made in their wartime experience.

It wasn’t unusual for some troops to enter combat convinced that they weren’t “readers.” It also wasn’t unusual for them to discover the pleasure of reading during the war, and they tended to continue the habit throughout their lives. Many returning soldiers used the G.I. Bill to obtain a college education using their improved skills and wider range of interests acquired from their wartime reading. Often college had been considered out of their reach before the war. Clearly, Americans benefitted immeasurably from opportunities they’d never expected. In fact, they were so serious about their education that regular-aged college students complained they had to work harder to keep up with the high grades and standards set by the G.I. Bill students!

Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the American president on March 4, 1933—less than 5 weeks after Hitler took office. Both inherited countries in dire need of help, but they could hardly have had more different temperaments and ways of dealing with issues.

FDR was a reader (as was Eisenhower); he described himself as a lifelong “reader and buyer and borrower and collector of books.” He designated April 17, 1942, as Victory Book Day, releasing this “statement on how books played an essential role in the fight for freedom:

We all know that books burn—yet we have the greater knowledge that books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” [p. 48]

It’s difficult to assess how great an impact the support and example of such a leader had on the book donation program, the ASE creation and distribution, and the creation of millions of reading Americans. It is certain that he helped change our nation for the better in this war of ideas.

“It is estimated that more than 100 million books perished over the course of the war. This figure includes books that were destroyed by air raids and bombs as well as by book burnings. Through the efforts of the Council on Books in Wartime, over 123 million Armed Services Editions were printed. The Victory Book Campaign added 18 million donated books to the total number distributed to the American troops. More books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed.” [pp. 193-194]

This book is well-researched and has made important history easily accessible to any reader. It’s clear that the author loved the topic and material. Pictures brought parts of the story to life. Best of all, Manning included a list of Banned Authors (Heinrich Heine was the biggest surprise) and a list of all the ASE’s and their release dates. I can’t think of anything more she could have added. This story shows that Americans can accomplish the near-impossible when they work together and have a common important goal.

Of all the images Manning evokes, this one sticks with me the strongest. Describing the horrors of the Omaha Beach landing:

“Many men who climbed the beach later that day would never forget the sight of gravely wounded soldiers propped up against the base of the cliffs, reading.” [p. 102]

What better way exists to take one’s mind off the place, time, and pain, to mentally flee to a better place until help arrived!

(Spoiler alert: I will try to locate 2 or 3 of the most-read and -loved ASE books to write about next month.)

--Donna Rueff--

May 2019


We meet Arthur Pepper, a 69-year-old retired English locksmith, on the one-year anniversary of his wife Miriam’s death. He had spent the last year in semi-hibernation, taking a “time out” from Life, stunned by the unexpected end of their happy marriage of more than 40 years. Feeling that it was the end of something and not knowing what came next, he had barricaded himself behind every-day meaningless tasks: watering his fern Frederica (yes, he’d named a fern), tending his garden, performing daily housecleaning chores. On this day, however, everything changed. While he had no way of knowing on that day, it was the beginning of “what came next” in his life.

Arthur decided this was the day to sort through Miriam’s belongings to prepare them for charitable donation. In the process, he checked inside a boot because he’d heard of a lottery ticket someone had once found inside boots purchased at a flea market. He was shocked to find not a lottery ticket, but a red heart-shaped box protected by a tiny padlock! Inside the box was a heavy charm bracelet with 8 charms attached, none of which he’d ever seen before. He was shocked because it seemed impossible to him that Miriam would have hidden it from him. WHY would she do that? It was completely out of character.

Arthur studied the 8 charms: an elephant in which a real emerald was embedded; a tiger; a book; a thimble; a flower; a ring; a painter’s palette; and last, a heart that looked newer and not as strongly attached to the bracelet as the other charms. He was baffled. None of those items held any meaning for him as he knew his wife of 4 decades.

He decided to try to solve this mystery. Upon close inspection, he saw a number engraved on the elephant. Deciding it MIGHT be a phone number, he dialed it—and was shocked when a man in India who had known Miriam before their marriage answered! The man explained that young Miriam had been his “ayah” in Goa for several months when he was a boy. He had loved her very much and given her the elephant when she left.

Arthur heard the story with amazement—he never knew Miriam had been to India before they met, never knew what she’d been like then. He’d simply assumed that she’d never done anything unusual or particularly interesting in her early adult years, just as HE had not. In all their decades together, they’d never talked with each other about the years before they met.

The unexpected revelation that the elephant charm had yielded stoked Arthur’s curiosity, so he decided to explore what the other charms represented. He connected the tiger charm to Graystock Manor and Lord Graystock who was still known to keep tigers on the Manor grounds. How Arthur gained access to the grounds and his subsequent encounter with a tiger before he was rescued is one of the funniest scenes in the book. He did not come away unscathed, but was not seriously injured or eaten.

He did come away, however, with an old photo of the young Miriam and a clue for his next stop. In the photo, she gazed almost adoringly at a French author, Francois De Chauffant. Arthur felt the surprising stirrings of jealousy, especially upon learning that the book charm’s inscription “Ma Cherie” referred to a famous romantic poem by the author. Arthur noted that the feelings stirred by the possibility of a rival made him feel alive.

What Arthur learned when he found and visited the author’s residence, however, was completely different from anything he’d imagined, as were his experiences in Paris (thimble charm) and at the art school (painter’s palette charm). (Spoiler alert: the most hilarious scene in the book is how he ends up posing nude for a drawing class.) Later he actually flies in an airplane to visit the man in Goa—something so radical, the old version of Arthur couldn’t have imagined it.

The travels and experiences which the charms guide him through not only open him gradually and bring him back to life, but also take him to a DIFFERENT and fuller life. He gets to know and love the young Miriam in a way that he never would have done if she’d simply told him about her early life and experiences. Arthur sees her through the eyes of people whom she helped, who cared about her—and one person who didn’t. He grows to realize that their marriage and their love was REAL for her; that it truly was what she wanted and gave her happiness. He no longer had doubts.

Arthur’s transformation is also helped along by people around him, and later HE helps in THEIR transformations. While he had been partially estranged from his son (who lived in Australia) and daughter, his new openness helps to bring the remaining 3 family members closer again. Arthur also allows his caring neighbors into his life in ways that enrich everyone.

This lovely book is Phaedra Patrick’s 2016 debut novel. I’ve not gone into much detail about Arthur’s odyssey to discover the story behind each charm because I don’t want to cheat readers out of their own personal experiences as they read. I think each one of you deserves a chance to see how this uplifting story speaks to you. On the surface, it may sound like a sad story. Don’t be fooled—I assure you, it is not.

Readers will walk away feeling happy they got to know Arthur, cheered by the kindness coming from his heart and with which those around him responded. They may see something in their own lives they need to open to, to be more daring. I know I will re-read this book when I need a reminder of its lessons for me, and I’m sure others will do the same.

Patrick has written two more novels since this stand-alone story of Arthur Pepper. I hope the characters are as likeable and the stories as touching as The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

--Donna Rueff--

April 2019

YES, CHEF by Marcus Samuelsson

I intended to choose a book for this month’s selection that was unrelated to cooking and chefs. Then I read Samuelsson’s book. I hope you’ll bear with me--I think Samuelsson’s and Ripert’s book (32 Yolks, March selection) should be paired. I hope you agree and enjoy this astonishing man’s memoir of his very different path to becoming a successful and famous chef.

Samuelsson’s story is literally one of rags to riches; the American dream fulfilled via a route and in a way that no novelist could concoct. Born Kassahun Tsegie in 1971 in rural Ethiopia in the midst of a tuberculosis epidemic, he contracted the disease by the age of one. His mother and older sister were also infected. As the mother’s health worsened, she walked 75 miles with the children to Addis Ababa for medical help. She did not survive, but somehow Marcus and his sister Linda (their adopted names) received prompt help, despite the waiting flood of ill people, and were cured.

Marcus and Linda were soon adopted together by the Samuelsson’s and went to live in Goteborg, Sweden. Marcus was too young to remember living with other parents or family, as his sister did, so the Samuelssons were the only family he knew. He received unconditional love and support from his parents and other family members, giving him a solid grounding in his early years (like Ripert had). He learned responsibility, discipline and focus from his father, as well as a love for fishing, how to prepare fish for eating, and how to smoke meats.

Like Ripert, Marcus developed an early interest in food and food preparation from a female family member, but from his maternal grandmother instead of his mother. She had worked as a maid for wealthy Swedish families, where she learned how to make restaurant-worthy meals. She prepared everything from scratch and introduced Marcus to rustic cooking. His love of aromas and flavors began here, and he has spent his life “chasing flavors.” Both Marcus and Ripert had this daily influence in their lives from an early age embedded in their memories and character.

As he grew, Marcus became a devoted and quite good soccer player. He was a member of a team that traveled to various countries where he was exposed to different foods and cultures. While Ripert already lived in the “Mecca” of culinary excellence (France), Marcus began to wish for wider horizons than Sweden. He was devastated when he was cut from the soccer group for being too small compared to other players. Not only could he not continue playing the sport he loved, but it also meant the end of travel outside Sweden. On the other hand, it steered him firmly in the direction of his other passion: food. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Ripert, Marcus was not especially interested in academics, saving his brilliance for culinary arts. He enrolled in vocational school in his mid-teens where he learned about cooking, waiting and dishwashing. Since he already had some culinary experience from home, he did well quickly. Marcus enhanced his skills at two work positions in Sweden, learning everything he could at different stations in the kitchen and how chefs supervised. He honed his work ethic, too, which served him well all his life. It was clear that he was eager and committed, and people noticed.

However, Marcus was restless to leave Sweden to broaden his horizons and skills. He actively searched for new positions and connections. At age 18, he secured an internship at the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel in Interlaken, Switzerland. This was a major step up, and working under the well-known Chef Stocker taught him much. Marcus worked at various stations learning how to prepare all sorts of dishes and foods. He was surrounded by people from many different countries, both in the kitchen and in the dining room, and learned how to run a well-organized kitchen by observing the Chef.

Marcus then did a stint in Austria where he learned about heavier, richer dishes; and one in France with George Blanc, where he learned what it’s like to work in a 3-Michelin-star restaurant (everything fresh, no “phoning it in.”)

However, the position that changed his future the most was cooking on a cruise ship where he traveled around the world. He would leave the ship for the few hours it stopped in port to try the food of that culture, often from street vendors. That experience opened a new world of flavors, spices and spice blends, sending his creativity and imagination soaring to new places. He was ready to take his unique personal food sense public.

Marcus loved New York City, where he went to work at a Swedish restaurant named Aquavit. The chef there at the time was brilliant, but hard partying eventually took its toll: he died of a heart attack at age 32. The owner, unable to find the kind of replacement chef he wanted, asked Marcus if he wanted the position. Marcus accepted, and several months later he became at 24 the youngest chef ever to earn 3 stars from The New York Times! He had achieved success but was just at the beginning of what he wanted to do. (This is where the Ripert and Marcus memoirs part company: Ripert arrived in NYC at age 24, which is where his memoir stops and before he opened Le Bernardin.)

Marcus loved NYC and knew he wanted to stay, so he became a U.S. citizen. As much as he loved Sweden and his adopted family, he began to FEEL his awareness of being black as he entered his teens. Some of it came from student bullies, and some of it came from knowing that certain people didn’t really see HIM and what he could do. They just saw a black person and made wrong assumptions about him without taking the trouble to see what he could do. I think this was part of his strong motivation, drive and determination to be THE BEST at whatever he did, to work twice as hard as everyone else to attain his goal.

In NYC, Marcus felt and looked like he belonged, that he blended in with the crowd. He was strongly drawn to Harlem, to the people, culture and history there. People actually greeted him on the street. He had found HIS home, far from where he was born and raised in every sense.

“I spent so much of my life on the outside that I began to doubt that I would ever truly be in with any one people, any one place, any one tribe. But Harlem is big enough, diverse enough, scrappy enough, old enough, and new enough to encompass all that I am and all that I hope to be. After all that traveling, I am, at last, home.” [p. 315]

As the years passed, he wanted to find a way to give back to them, to provide good food for them to enjoy, a place to meet and relax, to provide good local jobs and run a diverse kitchen. Thus was born The Red Rooster, a re-creation of an older Harlem fixture. His memoir details the difficulties entailed in bringing his dream to life, including almost going broke…but he did it, and it’s successful. Many of the dishes are re-creations of what the original Rooster served, but usually with a Marcus twist or variation that makes the food even tastier.

Harlem is not the only family Marcus found. The memoir includes a shocking, unexpected revelation discovered by Linda: she found their birth father in Ethiopia! Both had thought he was dead and they were orphans. In fact, he had spent ten years in seclusion after his wife (their birth mother) died, and he couldn’t find the children (nor did he know how to try). He eventually returned to his farm, remarried, and had 8 more children! Marcus and Linda had 8 step-siblings! They and their Swedish mother visited this new family, and one visit became an episode on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” series.

Marcus was able to help that family financially, including sending the 4 girls to school for as long as they want to stay. That took some convincing, as their father viewed that as labor lost on the farm. You can imagine how happy the girls were for this opportunity falling into their laps. This is a fine example of the generosity and philanthropy Marcus shows to so many people around him. He will give them a chance, a job, or whatever they need if it’s possible…paying it back and paying it forward.

Over the years, Marcus has garnered many awards and recognition for his culinary excellence, philanthropy, and myriad other outstanding achievements such as his work with young people. He was chosen as the chef for a White House state dinner hosted by the Obamas—as a boy, he could never even have DREAMED of doing that! He’s opened more restaurants, too. More information on all these parts of his life is available on his web site:


Marcus also filmed a 6-episode food series called “No Passport Required” for PBS. He visited 6 U.S. cities on a wonderful off-the-beaten-path culinary tour to Miami, D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, and Queens, NYC. More information is available here:


Marcus has achieved another goal: to change the way people think about food and how they prepare and eat it. He’s been on the cutting edge of culinary innovation for years, and his ideas continue to spread and be welcomed. His memoir is an inspiration to anyone who reads it.

For a toddler who very nearly didn’t live long enough to leave Ethiopia; then was raised by loving parents in a family who chose him; and who finally grew so strong, he made his dreams become reality for himself and thousands of others…well done AND rare, I say.

--Donna Rueff--

March 2019

32 YOLKS by Eric Ripert

Who is Eric Ripert? If you are a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s series “Parts Unknown,” you may have seen a handsome white-haired, green-eyed man with a French accent on several shows. Ripert and Bourdain were good friends, and in fact they were shooting another episode together in France when Bourdain died. Ripert is a chef and co-owner of the New York restaurant Le Bernardin, which has three Michelin stars. In short, he’s reached a pinnacle of success in the culinary world which few others have achieved.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies of successful and famous people. I like to trace the factors in their lives that led them to the life they have or what they’ve accomplished. Is it luck? Education? Connections that have helped them along the way? Their mental attitude? Or all the above?

Eric’s memoir has the most clearly delineated life path I can recall ever seeing. It’s clear HE has thought about this and identified the factors. As is often the case, events or circumstances that seemed sad, terrible, or negative at the time actually served to strengthen him later.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line (2016) is Eric’s memoir from his birth until age 24 when he left France to continue his career in America. He already had almost nine years of experience training and working under several of the best chefs in France by that time. He came to work with an American chef which later led to his opening his own restaurant. Eric was clearly on an exceptional and stellar career path in a field where connections do matter, but skill is more important.

Eric’s parents, Monique and Andre, both came from modest backgrounds, and each achieved success as adults: Andre in banking/finance, Monique as owner of a fashionable and popular clothing boutique. Their meeting in 1961 was classic, straight out of a French or Italian movie of that era. They were two beautiful young people who married, partied both before and after Eric was born 2 years later, and enjoyed a life that gave Eric an idyllic, loving environment for his first five years. He knew he was loved and loved both of his parents deeply. He was given the gift of a solid grounding in the formative years of his life.

Then it fell apart because of his father’s cheating. When Eric was 6, Monique and Andre divorced because Monique could not stand the way Andre’s cheating changed HER. Eric had little contact with his father after that, since he didn’t live nearby, but did write letters to him. Eric stayed with Monique but was devastated by not having his father in his daily life. Eric loved to hike in the mountains with his father, spend time in his garden, and listen to him play the jazz trumpet. Once his father left, all Eric’s childhood influences revolved around food: both grandmothers and an aunt were as involved with food as Monique was.

Living with Monique was the beginning of Eric’s food “training.” She always prepared a restaurant-quality dinner, complete with the white tablecloth, good silver and china. There were no fast, canned, or frozen foods in that home! Everything was freshly prepared. While Eric developed some behavior problems, it always calmed him to watch his mother prepare the food. Not only did he have a voracious appetite, but he also developed a discerning one in those years. Monique enjoyed making those meals—it was a matter of pride for her, and Eric felt it as an expression of her love for him. So that was another gift to Eric—how many people have a mother like that?

After about two years, Eric’s environment changed again: Hugo came to live with them as his stepfather. Hugo was the opposite of Andre. He was not handsome, successful, or even always employed—but he was faithful to Monique. He was also jealous of Eric and became abusive when Monique was working and the two of them were home together. Monique had made it clear that ONLY SHE would do any disciplining Eric might need, so Hugo would strike Eric in places where it wouldn’t show. Even worse was the mental abuse he heaped upon Eric. Although he was only a child, Eric was locked in a battle with Hugo, determined not to let Hugo “win.” Oddly, this was another gift to Eric that helped him survive the mostly mental abuse of the chefs for whom he later worked.

When Eric was 11, his father died of a heart attack on a hiking trip in the mountains. This was the worst possible blow for Eric, and to this day, he misses his father. Monique saw how sad and depressed Eric was and organized a meeting with a temperamental local chef named Jacques. (By this time, they had moved from southern France to Andorra.) He had a very small restaurant where he did everything himself and chose the people he’d allow to eat his dinners. This was another gift for Eric.

Jacques allowed Eric to visit every day and watch him prepare the meals, as well as eat there. One day he invited Eric to try caviar, which he liked very much. In the book, he mentions how the first taste of a food leaves a memory imprint that is invoked whenever it’s eaten afterward. He would always think of that happy time with Jacques when eating caviar later. I like that idea very much.

Until the age of 15, Eric had only watched his mother, relatives, and Jacques prepare food, and of course eat it. The rest of the book details his hands-on training and work. At fifteen, he began attending a two-year vocational school that trained boys to be waiters or cooks. Eric had no ambivalence about his career path but found that performing cooking tasks was very different from watching the process. Simply holding a knife correctly had to be taught.

Eric spent his post-vocational training in France on the line at three different restaurants, each more prestigious than the last. Despite his many descriptions of mistakes he made, he was offered each new position. Clearly he stood out even in his teens and early twenties.

The last position he held before leaving France was with a top chef named Joel Robuchon. This creative perfectionist was the youngest chef ever (38) to receive three Michelin stars; and those were awarded in just three years. The prestige of working in that man’s kitchen was phenomenal—but so was the price paid.

Anyone who harbors dreams of leisurely cooking delicious food for others to enjoy in a spacious kitchen needs Eric’s reality check. He describes in detail the stress of working 18-hr. days in a hot, crowded, sweaty space for a temperamental chef who doesn’t hesitate to verbally and mentally abuse his employees; to shame them for the slightest misstep in front of all others. Speed and perfection are mandatory. (The saga of the dots is priceless.) Every bit of technique learned and practiced a million times; every detail learned about the dish being created; every recipe memorized must be accessible to the line worker’s mind in a nanosecond.

While Eric gained valuable experience working for Robuchon which enabled him to take a job with a Washington D.C. chef and later open his own restaurant, the toll stress took was significant on his body, sleep habits and personal life. He also learned what type of boss he wanted to be when HE was the chef in his own restaurant. At some point, he turned to Buddhism to help him deal with the stress and maintain a more peaceful life.

What amazes me about Eric is what a charmed life he has led. He was born into a life that gave him every advantage and advancement into the career he wanted and which came to him naturally. Every step toward his goal materialized before him, came to him. With the exception of Hugo, everyone around him created food, loved food, and loved him. He was even able to turn negative events in his life into something positive later and in other circumstances. Not everyone is capable of doing that, but Eric was always appreciative. I know I’m a positive person, but Eric is an inspiration to me, anyway, as I’m sure he is to others. I think any reader will find his story interesting, and possibly even begin to think more carefully about food.

While Eric was waiting for his visa to go to the U.S., he spent time with a wise farmer in Gascony named Georges. Eric never needed a grand restaurant and title to be happy. This is one of my favorite quotes:

“Every time I cook on a fireplace, it all comes rushing back: the hams hanging, the grandma stewing the hare, fries in duck fat, the morning coffee cooked on an open flame. Georges’ greatest gift is how this all lives on in me. It was a very happy time in my life, and that was an important lesson too: to learn how little it took to be happy, to understand from a young age that the human heart is a small and delicate vase. You must handle it carefully, but in the right circumstances, it does not take much to fill it up.” [p. 234-235]

Oh, and 32 yolks? That’s the number needed to make hollandaise sauce.

--Donna Rueff--

February 2019


This month’s selection focuses on a little-known historical event in honor of Black History Month.

In recent months, I’ve become interested in events occurring in the few years after World War I in the U.S. We know much of that history, and some issues of that time, such as race, voting rights, and immigration, continue to play a large role in American society and politics a full century later. Other important cases have virtually vanished from known history, usually by attempts to hide the shocking ugliness and/or illegality of events.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann was the first account of this nature that I read. It brought to light the horrific story of the systematic murders of many Osage tribe members in 1920s Oklahoma for their oil wealth. That story led me to Prof. Alfred Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 published in 2002. Many sources have called the destruction of Greenwood, Oklahoma the worst riot in the 20th century. Knowing of many others that are more recent, I thought it must be an exaggeration…but after reading this book, I think it’s probably true.

Greenwood was a separate section of Tulsa, home to about 8,000 African-Americans. It was a vibrant community socially as well as economically, supporting successful businesses and services. In fact, many blacks had come to Greenwood for those reasons and to escape the restrictive Jim Crow Deep South where they had fewer opportunities and less freedom.

One horror they could not escape from, however, was the ever-present danger of lynching. In 1920 alone, there were 50 known lynchings--that’s one per week--several of which were near enough to Greenwood for its residents to be fully aware of the danger in which any black male could find himself at any time. Whites used mob lynching as a means of social control, of keeping the “natural” white hierarchy intact. [p. 11]

It’s no wonder that influential black newspapers such as Black Dispatch, the Chicago Defender, and others took on this issue. They pushed hard for rule of law and using the courts for change and resolution. Others, such as black veterans returning from the battlefields where they had fought for the freedom of others, supported a more immediate and direct approach: protect our own with weapons and skills we learned in the war.

On May 31, 1921, an incident occurred about which the details are still blurred. It involved a young black man in an elevator and a teenage white girl elevator operator. For a reason never known, when the elevator door opened, she screamed, and he ran. The minds of whites in those times and in that situation went straight to some sort of sexual misbehavior or attempted rape by the male. A black man surely knew that when a white female near you screams, even if the scream has nothing to do with you, you run. He did. He was caught and put in a jail cell on the top floor of the Tulsa courthouse.

News spread through both the black and white communities faster than the fire that consumed Greenwood hours later. Black men, mostly veterans, armed themselves and stood guard outside the courthouse. They succeeded in not allowing the growing white mob to capture and lynch that young man, but did not succeed in saving Greenwood.

A single gunshot fired by an unknown person changed everything. The scene shifted to Greenwood proper, setting off an episode of unspeakable violence including murder, looting, then burning of 35 blocks of black homes and businesses. City officials deputized every white man they could find, including prisoners, then badged and armed them. Some of those armed men acted as snipers, while others patrolled Greenwood’s streets. At 5 A.M., a whistle was heard, at which point the hunting—there can be no other word for it—of black men and women began in earnest. As people were flushed from their homes, they were shot at, and many killed. The homes were looted, then set on fire.

Even more chilling is the fact that a plane was used to strafe some people as they ran from the men on the streets. A few witnesses also reported seeing a dark cloud come from the plane. It was never determined if a chemical was dropped on the fleeing people as well. It’s unthinkable that an instrument and tactic used in the war would be used on American citizens in a purposeful and systematic attempt to kill them.

When the slaughter and fire died down later in the day, it was obvious that in just a few hours, Greenwood had been decimated. Pictures included in the book show that it looked as if a bomb had been dropped directly on it. No one knows the final death toll, or where all the bodies were buried. Witnesses saw trucks stacked with dead bodies driving away from town. Surely the dead number in the many hundreds, far more than in a similar 1923 attack in Rosewood, Florida.

In the aftermath, it wasn’t long before a black version and a white version of causes and events emerged. An all-white grand jury blamed the victims, causing the white version to prevail. As a result, insurance companies refused to compensate most blacks for their losses, citing the “riot exclusion” clause in their policies. Those who had their own means to rebuild did so. The owners of the Dreamland Theater reconstructed it (hence the book’s title), and it was functioning within a year.

City officials tried to use the opportunity of massive destruction to confiscate the Greenwood properties for the purpose of Tulsa expansion. One wonders if this had been the plan all along; if they had just waited for an opportunity to put it into action. Greenwood never did return to its earlier robust culture, and eventually the land was used for other purposes.

The black men standing guard at the courthouse door succeeded in their mission of protecting the young man from a white mob clearly bent on lynching him. The black guards were intent on peacefully ensuring that the law was followed. If elected law enforcement officials could not be trusted to do their job of enforcing the law, were perhaps even complicit in breaking the law by allowing the lynching, the men would protect their own. (The young man was not charged with any crime and later released.)

Slavery was two generations in the past by 1921. Many black men had been trained as soldiers and had risked their lives to defend or gain freedom for people in other countries. It was time to have what they were entitled to have for themselves in the U.S. By using the existing laws and going through the courts, blacks sought EQUAL PROTECTION. Blacks often found that the same laws were interpreted or implemented differently for and by whites. (Voting rights is a perfect example and a study on its own.) Blacks fought to have laws mean the same thing and be equally implemented without regard to one’s skin color.

Brophy discusses the reparations issue in his book, but I’ll not discuss that here except to say that around the year 2000, Tulsa made a few plans that sounded good, then never funded them.

I highly recommend this book or another on the same topic. Why? It’s important for Americans to know their history, including these hidden and horrific parts, to help us understand many of today’s events. We don’t always hear what REALLY happened. Sometimes we get sanitized versions or outright false ones based on someone’s particularly self-serving agenda. Sometimes history is suppressed altogether.

For me, the strong focus on LAW by those seeking EQUAL PROTECTION under it was a pleasant discovery. I particularly appreciated quotes from influential black newspapers of that time which Brophy included in his book. Nothing speaks truer than primary sources.

--Donna Rueff--

January 2019


Donna Leon is the creator of the Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series beloved throughout the world, as well as by many in the Grover Beach Community Library Senior Book Break. Our affection for the characters has not dimmed through the more than 20 books and several decades during which Leon has been telling their stories. Now she’s offered us a non-fiction look at “her Venice,” as well as a variety of other topics in this 2013 essay collection.

While there isn’t a lot of personal information about her earlier years, we know that she grew up in New Jersey, spent time in graduate school, then started teaching. (We know she is well-educated by the reading choices she gives Brunetti.) She taught for 4 years in Iran, which she liked very much, but was forced to make a dangerous and hasty exit when the Revolution began. She then taught for one year in Saudi Arabia, which she did NOT like.

At some point along the way, she was captivated by Italy and settled there. She lived mostly in Venice for about 30 years, although she has homes in other places now. Sadly, Venice has deteriorated in recent years due to several factors (e.g., unrestricted tourism, garbage issues, and worsening acqua alta), and she now spends much less time in Venice proper.

Several things about her surprised me, such as how much she does besides researching and writing the Brunetti books. She continued to teach for many years in a variety of settings; travels a lot for various literary-related functions and events; and does a lot of other writing, as well. Leon doesn’t seem to be slowing down as she approaches her late 70s!

Besides her beloved Venice, Leon’s essays cover music (she’s an opera lover, as we might have guessed from Death at La Fenice); mankind and animals; men; America (where she will never again live and explains why in the essay “The United States of Paranoia”); and books.

The essays are funny, angry, informative, human; always interesting, the product of an obviously insightful and intelligent mind. Maybe more of us should emulate her in not owning a television and rejecting social media and technology except for email on her computer and a telefonino! She describes her eventual capitulation to using minimal technology in the essay “E-mail Monsters” in a quite funny way.

I think many of us have heard horror stories of people who have bought centuries-old homes in Italy (especially Tuscany), southern France, and Spain. The nightmare of remodeling and rebuilding them has been written about by many, and we know it takes great love and patience to undertake such a task and remain sane.

Leon did not escape the infection from that particular bug and writes about it in “The House from Hell.” She found a 7-room apartment with views of Venice one can only dream of, then attempted to have the myriad things wrong with it fixed…or so she thought. Twenty-one months later, unable to take it anymore even for that exquisite view, she was actually able to sell it to someone else after telling him every detail of its problems. P. T. Barnum was right once again.

In the first essay section “On Venice,” we learn of the joys and downsides of life in La Serenissima. On the one hand, living in a city where the only vehicles allowed are boats on the canals allows (or maybe forces) one to meet and get to know real people. On the other hand, one doesn’t always want to know them. Neighbors can also be problematic, as Leon recounts in “Neighbor” about an elderly, largely deaf woman across the way who blasted her TV all night while SHE slept, and Leon did not.

Venice is a city of great beauty, has a long illustrious history, and is the repository of some of the world’s greatest art. Leon’s accounts of how Venetians (and tourists to some extent) treat their city, however, shocked me. Garbage is literally strewn in the streets and tossed in canals. Even worse, people often do not clean up the sidewalk after their dogs; or if they do, they may simply toss the waste into the canal. In a city where people must walk everywhere, often carrying heavy bags of groceries, careful navigation is crucial.

I’ve recently learned that Rome also has a street garbage problem, and perhaps other Italian cities do, too. I’m baffled that a country that has produced such beauty treats its common living spaces and environment with such lack of respect. In her essay “Badgers,” Leon says:

“…I’ve long been of the opinion that Italians don’t like nature. In fact, I’ve seen precious little evidence in thirty years that they see nature as much more than something to be brought into submission so that they can either profit, look good wearing it, or cook it.” [p. 99]

I had to laugh at her description, but in her frankness, she may be right.

The essay that enlightened me the most about Italian culture and mindset is “The Italian Man.” I will hasten to point out that Italian “legal institutions provide women complete equality with that of men,” and many women hold high office and positions. Yet Italy in general remains a man’s world.

Leon explains that because invaders, governments, and other ruling entities historically have been corrupt and unreliable, Italians turned to the FAMILY as the one trustworthy unit of Italian society. Its importance cannot be overstated: family is the bedrock from which all Italian men spring. Their certainty of self-worth and virility, of their place in the family, of their ability, right, and obligation to protect that unit, is unassailable.

At the same time, Leon regards Italian men as perhaps “the only pagans left in Europe, men for whom vanity is a virtue and not a vice, men for whom pleasure is a goal and not a sin.” [p. 129] The mother, whether their own or their children’s, is most highly respected, but men enjoy the company of all women.

While Leon doesn’t characterize it exactly this way, playful flirting permeates exchanges between Italian men and women, and represents the pleasure men take in interacting with women. She says:

“Some people might find this offensive, an invasive familiarity on the part of a stranger, but to many Italian men it is no more than the tribute due to a woman, no more flirtatious or suggestive than the admiring glance given to a painting or a field of poppies….If the family is the only meaningful bond, then all others are free to be nothing more than superficial.” [p. 130-1]

I suspect that not all women, especially younger ones, will regard such attention as a tribute, or agree with me to enjoy the fun without allowing it to go too far. Some cultures are simply more relaxed than others.

Finally, there are two essays that I also enjoyed very much. “Suggestions on Writing the Crime Novel” gives good advice from a professional writer that can be applied to all writing. It gives us insight into the process Leon has gone through to bring us one of our most beloved characters in crime fiction today.

“With Barbara Vine” is a very funny short essay about Vine and Leon, “two women of a certain age, respectably dressed,” eating at a public restaurant in Covent Garden while discussing the various ways they kill characters in their novels. While she makes no mention of anyone at the “closely placed” tables around them overhearing their conversation, the reader can imagine how funny the situation could be: how would others know they were talking about characters in books? Both decided they hate using guns and poison, by the way.

A final mystery: Leon writes in English and has allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into other languages…but not into Italian. Hmmmmm….

Meanwhile, I know I’m not the only one eagerly awaiting another visit with our beloved old friend Commissario Brunetti, his family, and co-workers.

--Donna Rueff--

December 2018


2018 has been quite a slog, and I think we’d all enjoy a bit of lightness and humor to end the year. In Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, Mark Dunn shows us in a humorous way the joy that the manipulation of words and language can bring to those of us who treasure them. If just speaking aloud the title doesn’t bring at least a smile to your face, I guarantee there are many pages in this book that will cause you to laugh out loud at Dunn’s creativity.

The story takes place on the fictional island nation of Nollop located just off the coast of South Carolina. It is named in honor of Nevin Nollop, the idolized creator of the famous phrase familiar to beginning typists:

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

This sentence utilizes all 26 letters of the alphabet in 35 characters. It was such an extraordinary and unparalleled achievement in the minds of the island’s ruling High Council that they worshiped Nollop and had erected a monument celebrating his brilliance a century earlier. The monument includes the famous sentence in the form of affixed tiles.

Ella Minnow Pea is an astute 18-year-old who lives on the island with her family and friends. They communicate mainly by letter, and the book is a collection of letters chronicling the events of this story as they unfold.

One day the tile bearing the letter “Z” in the sentence falls off the monument, smashing to pieces on the ground below. Logic might suggest that the tile could simply be replaced, right? Such a simple solution is not acceptable to the island’s High Council. They interpret the incident as “a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop’s wishes,” his way of telling Nollopians “from beyond the grave” that the letter “should be utterly excised—fully extirpated—absolutively heave-ho’d from our communal vocabulary!” (p. 6)

The strength of the Council’s pronouncement clearly leaves no room for disagreement or even discussion. In fact, the Council outlaws any use of “Z” in islanders’ speech and all written communication. Penalties are instituted for its use or possession in any form. A first violation earns a “public oral reprimand.” A second earns either a flogging or time in the headstocks. A third violation results in banishment from the island or death if the violator refuses to leave.

Do these penalties seem harsh, especially for just a “Z,” which isn’t used often? Remember that the High Council sees the use of the letter as a violation of the will of the great Nollop, although it’s actually a violation of the Council’s INTERPRETATION of the event. They are not open to the possibility of other meanings of the falling tile—that would border on treason—and also don’t believe a test proving it fell simply because the adhesive used a century ago could no longer hold the tile in place.

Soon more tiles fall from the monument as the adhesive continues to fail. Each time, the Council issues its edict. Nollopians have a short time to adjust to the exclusion of each letter from their vocabulary and dispose of written materials containing that letter. Homes are searched for prohibited materials. Citizens become wary of each other, as any slip of speech can be reported to the Council for punishment. The library closes—no book is safe. More and more people leave the island, some willingly, others are forced to leave or be put to death. Even basic communication can be a trap, and every word must be mentally checked before uttering it to be sure it contains no prohibited letters. As more letters fall and the substitution of “safe” letters becomes more prevalent, communication also becomes an ordeal of decoding.

Ella and a few others try to find a way to stop the madness of the all-powerful Council. Only one member reluctantly entertains their pleas for sanity. The Council finally issues a challenge: if the remaining islanders can create a sentence with all 26 letters of the alphabet using only a total of 32 letters (three fewer than Nollop’s famous sentence), that will prove superiority to the great Nollop. In that case, the orders and punishments will be dropped, and life and communication on the island will return to normal.

Naturally, the Council is certain that no one can meet their challenge. They would be wrong. I will tell you that the goal is achieved, but not how or by whom, other than to say it was not done by computer. I must leave readers with some mystery and surprise!

In the end, the only letters remaining on Nollop’s monument are…you probably guessed it…LMNOP.

Readers can draw a variety of meaningful lessons from this book. One of them might involve the use of “politically correct” language that has prevailed in recent years and its sometimes dampening effect on social communication. However, this book was written in 2001, predating the current “p.c.” usage.

Probably a universal takeaway is a greater awareness of language and its use in respectful social interaction. That lesson, taught with humor, still sticks with me weeks after finishing the book. We may not face the prohibition and punishments the Nollopians did, but we can all be more careful and thoughtful about the words we use and how we use them.

I decided not to take any grand lessons from this book. For me, the joy of Dunn’s creativity with words and language, all done with humor, sometimes snidely, provided everything I wanted from it. As the letters fall from the monument and their use becomes prohibited, the words he creates by using remaining legal letters become hilarious. Dunn has created a unique tale that any lover of words and language will enjoy.

--Donna Rueff--

November 2018


This month’s selection was chosen in honor of the centennial of the Armistice ending World War I effective on November 11, 1918.

Despite the rather lurid title, Marthe McKenna’s memoir of her harrowing adventures as a real spy for the Allies during World War I is a valuable addition to the genre and to that time period. First published in 1932, and again in 2015, her name and exploits seem to be unknown today. Her true story is as thrilling as many best-selling fictional spy stories. There is no doubt that her contribution to the Allied cause was extremely valuable to their ultimate success.

McKenna did not seek spying as a career; rather, it sought her. She was trained as a nurse which was not only a crucial profession during the war, but also placed her in a position to gather information of value to the Allies. After the German invasion of her home town in Belgium, her family and other townspeople were relocated to the nearby town of Roulers. There she worked at the local hospital treating both Allied and German wounded soldiers. Her family opened a café, and they were forced to billet several Germans in their household as well. She only needed to listen to or chat with others in the course of her daily routine and report information via a specified method.

Of course, she needed to be very careful. However, as a medical professional who was treating all soldiers equally, McKenna was known and trusted by the authorities. She was given a pass that gave her a legitimate reason to be out of her home unchallenged by guards at any hour, which allowed her a measure of safety and access other spies did not have. I also think that being female worked to her advantage in diverting suspicion by the German authorities. In short, she was in an excellent situation to gather information from various sources without suspicion and had flexibility in getting it to the Allies.

Most of McKenna’s spying tasks consisted of reporting details such as troop and arms placements and increases, dates and times of enemy events, and other information on which the Allies could act by bombing, sabotage, or other possible means. On several occasions, the Allies were able to destroy arms that would have been used against their soldiers. Once McKenna helped to obliterate an ammunition dump. She was also able to alert the Allies to German use of gas. On another occasion, she personally destroyed the German end of a communications line based in England in such a way that the British could apprehend that source. It’s impossible to estimate how many Allied lives she saved, perhaps even shortening the war.

On some occasions, her own life was seriously endangered. McKenna witnessed her contact being murdered mere seconds before she arrived to drop off information to be passed to the Allies. She always knew her life was in danger, but that near-encounter shook her deeply. On another occasion, she reported a gathering of German soldiers so they could be bombed by Allied planes. At the last minute, her hospital supervisor unexpectedly asked her to take some of the patients to this event. The gathering was bombed, and she and the patients survived without injury. It’s clear that luck played a large part in her success as a spy.

As important as her work was, another part of it bothered McKenna: the taking of life, even that of an enemy. As a nurse she was trained to heal, to save lives. At one point, she learned of a troop replenishment of one thousand newly-trained German soldiers. These young men had not even seen war on the battlefield, but were casualties of an Allied bombing raid she had called for. She expressed her ambivalence about this event:

“One thousand men in a dark building waiting unknowingly for death! Over to the east, mothers, wives, pretty girls were even now writing to those men, sending them little presents of home-made jam and sweets—perhaps many of these would arrive too late and would be returned to the broken-hearted senders unopened. And the curtain of smoke and searing steel which was to fall on those light-hearted soldiers was to be lowered by my hands. But this was War.” (p. 144)

In 1916, McKenna’s own luck ran out. Circumstances around the ammunition dump explosion led German authorities to her, and she was arrested and court-martialed. Originally sentenced to death by firing squad, the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment based largely on her medical help to soldiers of both sides. Earlier she had received the German Iron Cross for that service!

McKenna did not fare well in her two-year imprisonment. When she was released in 1918 at the war’s end, her health was very bad, and she was nearly blind. She slowly recovered and was awarded the French and Belgian Orders of the Legion of Honour as well as recognition by the British, including Winston Churchill.

There are countless war stories by soldiers in the trenches of the particular horrors they suffered: constant threat of death or maiming; seeing friends blown to bits in front of them; mud, rats, lice, cold, always fear, bad food or lack of it; little or no sleep; illness; and always soldiering on beyond the limits of endurance.

There are fewer stories of the home front life and trials: 24/7 occupation under the enemy for months or years with constant surveillance; shortages or inferiority of food and other items, as the best of everything was sent to soldiers; bombing and bombardment; intrusion into households and private lives; destruction of lives, homes, crops, and sometimes morality; illness; and the need to devise clandestine behavior to circumvent occupiers.

Perhaps the most stressful part of both circumstances is never knowing when it will end. Many people said the hostilities that became WWI would be over by Christmas 1914. Instead, it dragged on for nearly four more years with enormous loss of life and very little to show for it all. The most it accomplished was to defer resolution and set the stage for WWII two decades later.

I enjoyed McKenna’s book as much as Winston Churchill apparently did and as much as I think any reader would. Having once done a bit of spying himself, he said of McKenna:

“She fulfilled in every respect the conditions which made the terrible profession of a spy dignified and honourable. Dwelling behind the German line within the sound of cannon, she continually obtained and sent information of the highest importance to the British Intelligence Authorities.”—Winston Churchill, 1932

One would be hard pressed to earn higher praise and respect than that!

--Donna Rueff--

October 2018


Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Florence: everyone knows the names of these recent major U.S. hurricanes that caused immense physical and psychological damage. What few people know about, and which no one alive today remembers, is the hurricane of September 8, 1900 that decimated Galveston Island and part of the Texas southeastern coast. Erik Larson’s 1999 book is subtitled: “A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.” The lack of scientific instruments at that time (those on the island were destroyed in the storm) can’t prove that it was the deadliest in the U.S., but the extreme loss of life and property, the sheer devastation on the island and along its path through the U.S. as it exited, appear to remain unparalleled.

Galveston Island is a barrier island that stretches off the southeastern coast of Texas. The Gulf of Mexico lies on the southeastern side of the island, and Galveston Bay lies between Texas and the island. In September 1900, a strong hurricane approached from the summer-warmed Gulf bringing a huge storm surge and rain while simultaneously strong north and northeast winds pushed the Bay water onto the island on the land side. With a maximum island elevation of under 9 feet, even the care taken to build houses on stilts and with strong materials proved to be no match for Nature’s ferocious squeeze play. Many people who thought their homes would be a safe haven in a storm discovered otherwise, as their houses washed off the foundations, then disintegrated into mere kindling from the forces of water and wind.

The loss of life was catastrophic. It was impossible to determine the exact number of deaths, but the estimates range from 6,000 to 10,000 people lost, not including those lost along the Texas coast. Many people were simply washed out to sea and disappeared forever. As workers started combing through the wreckage and finding bodies which became less identifiable with each hot passing day, they finally resorted to building funeral pyres on the beach, even if the bodies had not been identified.

Galveston never recovered from the devastation. Prior to the hurricane, it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, modern city with a busy port. While they were rebuilding, a vast oil field was discovered in Beaumont, Texas, and Galveston lost its competition with Houston. The mainland had the advantage of being nearer main railroad links and a more reliable infrastructure that was less vulnerable to the utter destruction Galveston had experienced. Houston may have been deemed safer then, but in 2017, hurricane Harvey showed us what extensive damage can still be done to one of the largest U.S. cities (minus the huge loss of life thanks to evacuations and better preparations).

So—who was Isaac, and why was this HIS storm? Isaac Cline was a meteorologist, scientist, and physician who was interested in studying the effects of weather on health. He joined the newly-formed U.S. Weather Service in 1882. In 1891, Cline was by then one of the Service’s best men and was sent to run the Texas Section of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston. He and his small staff, which later included his younger brother Joseph, had responsibility for checking and reporting instrument readings and forwarding that information to the Washington D.C. central office, from where appropriate information was telegraphed to the various U.S. offices.

When Willis Moore was named the head of that office, the trouble started. Although trained as a scientist and meteorologist, Moore was what we recognize today as a narcissistic egomaniac who “never missed a chance to burnish the reputation of the Weather Bureau or boost his own political stature.” (p. 74) That meant he would ignore facts which he perceived to be inconvenient, and when it concerns the weather, that’s a problem. E.g., he was “reluctant” to allow the Bureau to use words like “hurricane” and “cyclone” so people would not become “needlessly” alarmed. As a consequence, people made decisions about their activities, such as taking a boat or ship to sea, that in the end endangered their lives or even caused loss of life.

Other action taken by the Bureau added to the eventual catastrophe. Cubans had long experience with hurricanes. They knew a bad one was coming and most likely headed across the heated Gulf waters toward Galveston. Moore had placed a Bureau rep in Havana after the war with Spain. That rep “saw the people of Cuba and the Indies as a naïve, aboriginal race in need of American stewardship.” (p. 103) The forecast of the Cubans, which was accurate, was never released outside of Cuba, and worst of all, never sent to Cline in Galveston. Instead, the Bureau predicted the storm would take the usual path up the U.S. Atlantic coast, indicating it wasn’t much to worry about.

Cline and the Galveston office never received a clear hurricane warning from the Bureau. He had no advance warning in time to allow Galvestonians to leave the island by train or boat. In essence, they were trapped there during one of the fiercest hurricanes ever to hit the island AND with the wind pushing in water on the island’s OTHER side with no shelter beyond their flimsy (in those conditions) homes.

Cline and his brother Joseph realized something was wrong by the morning of September 8. Instrument readings and the booming of deep ocean swells told them both that there might be trouble ahead, but they had no way to judge what or how bad it might be. Cline did suggest to some Galvestonians that they should find shelter that day, but he was careful not to violate the Bureau taboo of spreading alarm among the populace. In hindsight, we might ask why he didn’t act more strongly on the few facts he saw and on his good intuition. He did not violate “an unwritten tenet of bureau culture as it had evolved under Willis Moore: Do not ever let your own star shine more brightly than the chief’s.” (p. 249) It’s my opinion that the blame for what happened in Galveston should be laid at the feet of Moore, making it MOORE’S storm. Cline didn’t have many facts—Moore ignored them.

The Cline family and many other people gathered in the Cline home to ride out the storm. At some point, the house lifted off its foundation and broke apart, casting Isaac and 2 daughters into the water through the window of the upstairs bedroom where they sought shelter as the house rolled. Had they been standing anywhere else in that room, they probably would have drowned, as did most of the others there. Isaac, his 3 daughters, and Joseph survived by hitching rides on floating debris. Isaac’s pregnant wife Cora did not survive. He was devastated. Her body was eventually found, identified by her clothing and wedding ring, which he wore for the rest of his life.

I first read Isaac’s Storm several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I thought of it for this blog because of hurricane Florence, and re-reading it has moved it to my favorites list. I wanted to share it with others. Who knew weather could generate such an intriguing story!

Larson did an excruciating amount of research of archival materials, written and oral accounts by survivors, newspaper articles, histories of ships lost in Caribbean hurricanes since the time of Columbus, and every imaginable source that could be found. (My favorite example is this: the list of some of the donors who sent post-hurricane donations includes $12.25 sent by the Kansas State Insane Asylum. p. 244) Larson has the gift of pulling it all together in a form that reads like a novel. It’s a fine example—and a warning—of the dangers of hubris, both personal and national. In the heady times at the turn of the century, technology progressed very rapidly and in ways that made some think humans could even control the weather. In our current times with climate change such an issue, it’s clear humans can AFFECT the weather to a certain extent, which is not the same as CONTROLLING it. Nature will likely always have her way, but we are improving ways to deal with the EFFECTS of weather. Even so, if readers want to experience a hurricane, the safest way is to read Isaac’s Storm in their warm, DRY home.

--Donna Rueff--

September 2018


Zora Neale Hurston (b. 1/7/1891; d.1/28/1960) was an accomplished ethnographer, folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist. She attended Howard University and received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1927. As an African-American woman from the South at that time, she was driven and found ways to accomplish her goals. Her best-known work which has grown in popularity over the decades is Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her other books and writings (essays, short stories, plays) were published decades ago, some of it for a more limited or academic audience. The manuscript written in 1931 which became Barracoon, however, was never published in book form until May 2018.

Barracoon was on the “New York Times” hardcover bestseller list until August 2018. Hurston has become more popular posthumously, as topics she wrote about have gained widespread interest throughout American culture in the ensuing decades. (Note: a barracoon is temporary barracks-like housing for those awaiting transport via ship to the country where they’ll be enslaved.)

Barracoon is the story of the last surviving person to be brought from Africa on the very last and little-known slave ship named the Clothilda. It was a small and fast sailing ship that 3 brothers named Meaher and a Captain Foster took to the African coast for the purpose of illegally transporting Africans to the American South in 1860 to be used as slaves. Their return was on the brink of the South’s secession and onset of the Civil War. Had they been caught in the U.S., the penalty for the Meahers and Foster would be death. They managed to outrun or evade authorities, unload and distribute their cargo of Africans to be used as slaves, then sank the ship. While the four men each took some Africans for their own use, the remaining slaves were bought and sent to Selma, Alabama.

Hurston was sent to interview the last survivor of these events to get his story—an oral history. She first met Cudjo Lewis in 1927 and spoke with him intermittently over a period of several months. (Note: while his African name was Kossola, he commonly used the name Cudjo Lewis, which I’ll also use here. Cudjo means a male child born on a Monday…one of the many small and wonderful nuggets found in this book!)

His story is told in dialect, and this is the core of the book. He was born in 1841, so in his late 80s when he told his story to Hurston. He was born into an African family that was not poor, but not a reigning family in his tribe, although his grandfather was an official for their king. He had a good and happy life that ended without warning when he was 19. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Dahomans attacked his village, killing or beheading many of the villagers while taking the young, strong men captive. That village was wiped off the map, and the captives, including Lewis, marched to the coast, where they were kept in a barracoon for several weeks until the Clothilda arrived. Arrangements were made to buy 125 of the captives, including Lewis.

This is where Lewis’s life changed forever. As the captives were being loaded onboard, someone sighted attackers coming. All but 1 load of about 15 captives remained, but the ship had to set sail immediately and left them behind…except for Lewis, who called out to a friend being loaded, and was allowed to board, too. Had he kept silent, he would have remained in Africa and probably been killed by the attackers or died of starvation. There was no good choice at that moment.

After 45 days at sea, the crowded ship arrived in the U.S., and after the deceptive moves mentioned above, the captives were dispersed. Lewis was taken by a Meaher brother who treated him comparatively well. He was trained in his work and remained a slave for 5.5 years until he was given freedom at the end of the Civil War. He rented & farmed land until he was able to buy a parcel. He married and fathered 6 children. All of them and his wife preceded him in death, leaving only a few grandchildren by the time Hurston talked to him.

Lewis died not long after their talks. He was lonely, had a challenging life, felt deep sorrow at losing all his children and wife over the years, knew many things were wrong, but he did not feel sorry for himself. He did not whine. Although he dreamed of returning to Africa one day, he could never afford it. My thought is that it’s probably just as well. After his slave and other experiences, it’s likely he’d no longer fit it. In any case, his village had been eradicated, so where would he go.

I was struck by several bits of information that show how different cultures do things. My favorite was how his African tribe handled marriage. Before he was captured, Lewis had his eye on a young woman and asked his parents to start the marriage process. He was captured before this could happen, but he had explained that when the first wife is tired of being the only wife, she tells the husband and starts looking for another wife for him. SHE chooses any additional wives, trains them in their duties, etc. I think that’s a smart way to handle polygamy. In other cultures, if the wives don’t get along, that means trouble and bad feelings for the entire family. This way, the women all get along, there’s help with the work and children, and other wives are trained how to do the work by the first wife. Household harmony should ensue, and who wouldn’t want that!

However, there were other things that I think dismayed and saddened Hurston; e.g., it was evident that there wasn’t unity among the African tribes. This wasn’t a simple case of white men landing on African soil and trapping people to take as slaves. The Dahomans who brutally killed and took captives from Lewis’s tribe did it for enrichment of their own tribe; quite simply, for money and power.

The Africans and African-Americans on the plantation where Lewis was taken weren’t all helpful in training and helping him adjust. Some made fun of his inability to understand their language upon his arrival and ridiculed his personal ways. I suppose that helped certain people at the bottom of the social ladder to feel superior to SOMEONE, but it was certainly unkind and outright mean. Lewis’s boys were also badly teased when they were in school, to the point where they became very tough fighters in self-defense.

I felt that Hurston wished the Africans and African-Americans acted better than that, that their behavior should be exemplary for humanity. Deborah Plant says in the Afterword:

“The body of lore Hurston gathered was an argument against…notions of cultural inferiority and white supremacy, and it defied the idea of European cultural hegemony as it also questioned the narrative of white supremacy.” (p. 159)

Besides Lewis’s story told in dialect, there’s a wealth of other detailed information in this book from various sources that corroborate what he says and with the historical record. As one often finds with illiterate people, Lewis’s memory was excellent, even at his age, and what he said has been proven. There is much to learn in the additions, and I found all of it fascinating. I highly recommend this book, as well as her others, to anyone who enjoys folklore, but above, storytelling. Hurston is one of the best.

Donna Rueff


When I started reading Barracoon, I remembered an episode of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. I remembered that he mentioned there was one last slave ship that most people had never heard of; and that Questlove was a descendant of someone on that ship. That was obviously an astonishing piece of news. I include information here for anyone who wants to watch Questlove get the news:


In case you don’t know who Questlove is, this is from Wikipedia:

Questlove “is an American percussionist, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, music journalist, record producer, and occasional actor. He is best known as the drummer and joint frontman (with Black Thought) for the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots…. Questlove is also one of the producers of the Broadway musical Hamilton…. Additionally, he is an adjunct instructor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.”

I think it helps to know that this ONE good thing came out of that horrific tale. Who knows, there may be many more Clothilda descendants in Alabama and nearby states who have contributed greatly to humanity.


August 2018


A strange thing happened on my way to this month’s blog. I had planned to discuss something completely different (which I’ll do another time), but Paula Huntley’s 2003 book kept creeping into my mind. Reading the blurbs raised a question for me: can one small, important book really change the lives of people in a far and troubled corner of the world? I needed to answer that question for myself. After reading this book, my intuition has been screaming at me to share this story with others…so here we are.

Huntley’s book is actually her journal of the 8 months she and her husband spent in Kosovo in 2000-2001. Her husband, Ed Villmoare, was a law professor who volunteered to help create a legal system in Kosovo while she taught English as a second language. It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic change from living in coastal Bolinas, CA to living in a war-torn and traumatized country in much reduced circumstances and not knowing the language. On the other hand, the Kosovars needed help in virtually every imaginable way, so Huntley and her husband offered theirs because they could.

It’s important to know a bit about Kosovo to understand what the “internationals” who came to Kosovo faced. Huntley explains it so well in her “accidental book,” as she calls it: the journal that became an unplanned book. The Balkans have been problematic for centuries, as we in the West have learned. It’s an area of collisions; where the edges of empires, religions, ethnic groups, and codes of living meet, often in conflict. The area known as Kosovo has been occupied for about 10,000 years by various groups, including the Romans. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Slavs migrated to the area, and it was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 100 years ago. It was made part of Yugoslavia after WWI, then made an Autonomous Province within Serbia after WWII. Every Kosovar knows their history of greatness, who their heroes are, and what they did. Outsiders must understand the importance of pride in their history, their courage to prevail, which is still strong in their mindset.

After WWII, Yugoslavia fell under Communism and the rule of Josip Tito. He was able to hold together the motley grouping of which Yugoslavia was comprised under a looser form of Communism than Russia practiced until his death in 1980. In the 1990s, Serbian president Milosevic cracked down on the Kosovars in ways that sound exactly like Jim Crow, turning Kosovars into second-class citizens. In 1998-1999, Serbian paramilitary and other forces used Nazi-style techniques (e.g., packed trains) to send nearly 1 million Albanian Kosovars out of Kosovo in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They then swept through Kosovo in a genocidal wave, killing many males and brutalizing other Kosovars and especially females (Huntley gives more details). In March-June 1999, NATO conducted armed intervention, including bombing Serbian parts of the capital city of Pristina, to push out the Serbs. The city and country were in shambles. Few people survived with their entire families intact, & virtually everyone was traumatized to some extent. Kosovars were by no means going to accept Serbian rule again and wanted independence. This is the Pristina and Kosovo that Huntley and her husband encountered in September 2000.

Huntley describes her feeling of terror at making this change in their lives. That fear disappeared once they were on the ground in Kosovo, however, despite the environment of destruction, rebuilding, lack of dependable services and supplies, huge piles of uncollected garbage in the streets, not understanding the language, and just general “otherness.” She found herself opening to the people and accepting the situation, something she credits in good part to her age. At 56, she reacted differently than she feels she would have in her 30s. She was in turn accepted happily by the generous Kosovars, who loved Americans. While Serbs were hated for what they had done to Kosovars, they felt that the Americans helped them push back the Serbs.

Huntley secured a position teaching English as a second language at the Cambridge School, a privately owned English language school in Pristina. She wasn’t sure anyone would come to her class, given the condition of the city, transportation difficulty, etc. The class eventually grew to nearly 20, most in the high school-college-age range. The students all had some basic command of English, and her goal was to increase their vocabulary and command of the language. Huntley wrote about each student as she got to know and love them—and they to know and love her.

She wondered why these students were trying to learn English at that time in their country. That’s when she learned about the deep and strong family ties in Kosovar society. Family was everything (which makes what happened to family members even more horrifying). Young people wanted and expected to stay with their families, to do whatever they could to support the whole family. That meant having a good job, and the best way to get one, often abroad, was to know English, the common language of business. That made sense.

Huntley looked for various creative ways to improve her students’ English ability. By chance, she found a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. She felt the simple language, short story, and classic tale was a good choice, so made a copy for each student. Since this “book club” was outside of their classwork, she invited them to her rented home to meet and talk about their assignments. It was this story, this relaxed and informal meeting place to talk about it, that Huntley says cemented the class into a family. While she didn’t think at first that the students could relate to the old man, the sea, and the fish, she says that it turned out to be the perfect work for them. “Hemingway’s fable of the spirit’s victory over loss and adversity turned out to be the story of my students’ lives.” (p. 206) His courage inspired them to keep up their courage and not bend under adversity.

What touched me most deeply about this book is how the best aspects of humanity emerged from loss and sorrow by disparate people coming together. Yes, there was hate…Huntley gently tried to temper the “all Serbs are killers” statement to a more moderate “some Serbs are killers;” the “all Romas collaborated with Serbs” statement to “some Romas collaborated with Serbs.” People have to stop being seen as people, as humans; they must be seen as objects, as “the other,” for the kinds of atrocities that were committed to be perpetrated. Perhaps with time, Kosovars will feel more moderate, but the loss and brutality were too fresh just then. These students and Huntley were able to give each other hope, support, and love; to be able to give of themselves to each other.

In her final meeting with her students, Huntley spoke from her heart:
“We all have a responsibility to think about the purpose of language—what we do with our words. I encourage you to use your new language to try to understand people who are different from you, to help them understand you. And use your new words to say kind things to one another, to help other people, to encourage them, to make them feel better about themselves. To express the things I know each of you feels in your heart: love, generosity, compassion.” (pp. 204-205)

To revisit my initial question, I’d say: yes. Hemingway’s small book really did change the lives of the students and the teacher by allowing them to talk about things they’d never have discussed otherwise; by doing so in a safe place and emotional space; and thereby creating a new type of family (the most precious thing in Kosovar culture) for them all. Huntley and her husband have kept in touch with most of the students, even helping some financially when possible, and in whatever other ways they can.

I will be re-visiting Huntley’s journal-turned-book often to remind myself of its wisdom. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

--Donna Rueff

July 2018


Summer is here, it’s vacation time--we’re off to the Tuscan town of Siena, Italy!

Robert Rodi wrote Seven Seasons in Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Italy’s Proudest People in 2011 after spending seven seasons in Siena between the summers of 2003 and 2010. He is an American of Italian descent on his paternal side, and traveled to various cities in Italy prior to visiting Siena to attend his first Palio horse race in 2003. He had felt a connection to the Italian culture, but it wasn’t until the visit to Siena that he “found what I didn’t even know I’d been looking for: the ideal Italian society. And hence the ideal society, period.” (p. 15) His interest in the Palio expanded to become an interest in the culture and people of Siena, and he returned as often as he could in his effort to become part of it.

Before we go further, it’s important to know a bit about the history of Siena because that’s what makes it a unique place and gave rise to the Palio and customs. The Etruscans originally inhabited the area centuries before Christ. Later Siena became a wealthy and powerful independent Republic because it was on a route which pilgrims passed through on their way to Rome. The Republic flourished for four centuries, although it began to wane with the onslaught of the Black Death in 1348. At least one-third of the population died in the plague. After that, there weren’t enough men to staff the army to its previous levels of power, and the decline ended in 1555 when it had no choice but to surrender to Florence and its ally Spain.

Florence instituted an extremely oppressive rule over Siena which cut it off and kept it from flourishing. “The entire Renaissance just glanced right off it, as though it were under a bell jar.” (p. 9) In defiance, the proud Sienese turned inward and created their own customs and traditions, among which is the Palio. Much of what visitors see today has been passed down from those times with some variations over the centuries. What has NOT really changed is the deep animosity and bitterness toward its near neighbor Florence. This is a place where history isn’t deep in the dusty past, but lives today, as evidenced by an anniversary Rodi mentions of an event that occurred 750 years ago!

This is the background, then, for the Palio. The people of Siena are divided into 17 contradas (districts) which are named and whose residents sport their chosen identifying colors. Most of the names are of animals, but not all. The contrada that Rodi became involved with was the Caterpillar—Bruco in Tuscan Italian—because his friend and host, Dario Castagno, was a member of that contrada. Sienese are members of a contrada by being born into it—if you ask a Sienese where he’s from, he’ll tell you his contrada. Since Rodi is American, you can see the difficulty in his attempt to become a Bruco! That didn’t stop him from trying.

There are two Palio races a year: July 2 and August 16. The July race is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano. The August race is dedicated to the Feast of the Assumption. The prize for each is a banner (drappellone) custom painted by an artist, but it must include the Madonna somewhere in it. The drappellone is proudly displayed somewhere in the contrada through the years.

Of the 17 contradas, 10 run in each race. There’s an intricate method of selecting which contradas will race each time. Drawings are held to determine which horse each contrada will have to race, & the contrada selects their own jockey to ride it bareback. They run 3 laps clockwise around the track, which is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo at the center of the city, in 90 seconds. If a rider falls off but the HORSE finishes, that counts. More than one fallen jockey has been seriously injured or trampled over the centuries.

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking: each race is NINETY SECONDS??? All this fuss for THREE MINUTES TOTAL each year for centuries?? Yes, indeed, and there is an amazing amount of time, money, effort, and bickering throughout the entire year involving scouting horses, selecting the jockey, bargaining and making deals with a variety of people, other contradas, etc. There are NUMEROUS delicious dinners feeding hundreds of people at a time, celebrations, and parades for all sorts of reasons during the year. There is a lengthy parade before each race where (for example) teen boys in medieval dress display awesome skill with flags. Those appearing in that parade practice throughout the year. Everyone has something to do throughout the year and has some part in the Palio and/or surrounding events.

Rodi describes all this wonderful activity in a loving way that makes clear how much he cares about this place, the people, and the culture they’ve created. He’s brave enough to include many stories of his own and others’ missteps, as well as his successes, and to admit his own insecurities. I particularly enjoyed his humor and certain things he pointed out, like the winning contrada sporting baby pacifiers! It turns out that winning the Palio is equated to rebirth, hence the pacifiers. Who would have guessed. In another instance, an elderly Sienese couple asked where he was from. He couldn’t understand why they began to laugh hysterically when he said “Chicago” until he later learned that “Ci cago” is Italian for “I s**t there.” Hmm, I’m guessing whoever named Chicago wasn’t a Tuscan Italian. He also included a Tuscan saying I’ve heard before: “Better a corpse in your house than a Pisano on your doorstep.” (p. 185) (Pisano is a person from Pisa, not to be confused with “paisano.”) That’s harsh!

My favorite part of the entire book, however, is his eventual understanding of the nature of the Sienese people as being “defined by a competition. By a game. One that provides them a constant source of renewal and of hope. Is it any wonder they seem to be the happiest, most self-reliant people I’ve ever met?” It seems their defeat & oppression by Florence centuries ago, while it might have crushed others, provided the Sienese with an opportunity for their strength to blossom into something positive and uplifting.

Another observation by Rodi involved Sienese teens. He noticed that they happily and willingly took part in events and activities without all the drama and resentment that American teens tended to display. “There’s no gang activity within Siena’s ancient walls, no juvenile delinquency, nary a trace of hoodlumism or vandalism; why would there be, when all the aggression and acting out that drives such activities are already accorded a fixed place in the culture? In that way, the contrade system comes with its own safety valve.” (p. 36) “I’m deeply moved by the enthusiasm and commitment of these kids; they seem so ordinary, so familiar in many ways, yet their zeal for their community and its traditions is something absolutely singular…. The teenagers of the Caterpillar…know exactly who they are. They always have.” (p. 252) In this time of violence, drug use, and suicide in the U.S., it seems that we might learn a few things from the Sienese.

Although Rodi is a writer, he seems to have written nothing further like this book or about the area. His Tuscan host and friend, Dario Castagno, has written a few books about Tuscany and Chianti which are available on Amazon. My favorite remains Rodi’s Seven Seasons in Siena, even—or especially?—upon my third reading. He has captured the spirit of the Sienese people and culture, described them with love and humor, and shown readers that there ARE places on earth where people have created a special society where everyone has and knows their place.

Oh, and he DID get baptized into the Bruco contrada—his wish came true.

If you want to see a Palio race, you can search youtube.com for: il palio di siena. Both races for 2017 are available for viewing. The next one is on July 2, 2018 (don’t forget the time difference).

Donna Rueff

June 2018

by Rachel Kushner

I’ve been thinking about the recent end of the Castro era in Cuba (both Fidel and Raul), which led me to think about pre-1959 Cuba. Even though I was still in grade school when Batista was overthrown and the revolutionaries took over, I remember it. I don’t know why, as I probably couldn’t even find Cuba on a map then, but it’s stuck in my mind for all these years. I decided I wanted to find out more about the BEGINNING of the Castro era, now that we know the end.

Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut novel Telex from Cuba received several prizes and nominations, as well as wide acclaim. It covers the period from 1952 to early 1959, with bits from more current times. This novel focuses on the eastern end of Cuba where the revolution grew in the more uninhabited, backward, and poverty-stricken areas far from Havana. It is centered in an American-owned and -run enclave including a vast United Fruit Company sugar cane plantation and a nearby nickel mine. Kushner has given a voice to the motley collection of ex-pats who work and reside in the enclave through her selection of characters who tell their stories.

Kushner studied political economy with an emphasis on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America at University which served as excellent grounding for this story. Later she made several long trips to Cuba, where her mother grew up on the actual United Fruit Co. land, and did extensive historical research as well. It’s no wonder that her book feels so REAL; feels autobiographical in its extreme and astonishing detail. Readers can almost smell the sugar cane during its various steps in the process…and when it’s burning in fires set by the rebels.

The key characters telling their stories include:

--K. C. Stites, a young boy of 8 in 1952. His father is the top man in the Cuban UFC branch. His older brother Del actually joins the rebels (obviously a traitorous act) and participates in the actual revolution. K.C. was born in Cuba, has never lived anywhere else.

--Everly Lederer, a young girl a bit older than K.C. and new arrival to Cuba. Her father oversees the nickel mine.

--2 lesser characters are Rachel K (K is her full last name), a Havana cabaret entertainer who also functions as a spy of sorts at high levels such as mistress to President Prio, then President Batista after he overthrows Prio; and a mysterious man named Christian de La Maziere, who becomes her lover when he’s in town. The latter is involved in a variety of nefarious and secret dealings involving arms sales and whatever else comes his way, as he has done since WWII.

--The remaining ex-pats. The various families & family members represent just about every social class, financial, and marital situation, even including a few on the run from crimes for which they would be jailed if they returned to the U.S. Some have re-located from various South American and Caribbean countries. As long as they do their jobs well in Cuba, other issues are overlooked.

Perhaps the facet of this novel that interests me the most are the class/racial/ethnic divisions. Kushner is very good at depicting the lives of the Cubans and blacks at that time. Their home living conditions were appalling. Many of them were employed as servants for the ex-pat families in large modern homes. Those who did not live in would return after work to literal shacks, usually without running water, electricity, or proper sewage disposal. Wages were very low, barely enough for their families to live on, and certainly nowhere near what their employers could afford to pay.

Even worse was the treatment and plight of the cane cutters. These were mostly blacks brought in from Jamaica and Haiti to harvest the sugar cane for processing. Kushner describes what back-breaking and dangerous work it was; how the sharp leaves could cut the men. Time was of the essence in getting the cane cut and processed, so long hours and fast work were required. She also describes how the men were allotted a certain “wage” which they could spend at the company store during their time in Cuba. The Jamaicans and Haitians came to earn money, but often returned home with little to show for their work. In some cases, cutters would spend their entire allotment and return home with no income at all.

In addition to extreme poverty, ordinary Cubans had to deal with a repressive regime led by (at that time) Fulgencio Batista; the Rural Guard, a “police force” of thugs who acted with extreme violence up to and including torture and murder; and the ostentatious flaunting of wealth and privilege by top members of the government and non-Cubans, while they themselves were near starvation and lived barely better than animals. For them, it was a life over which they had little control and in which they were subject to the whims of others, including imperialist outside forces. It’s inevitable that some emerged who felt deeply they needed to change the status quo.

Telex from Cuba is not the easiest book to read—but it’s well worth it if a reader has any interest in Cuba at that time. There are many characters, and readers need to pay attention to keep them straight. Personally, I didn’t have an issue with that and don’t think she made it difficult for her readers.

What I like best about Kushner’s book is that she presents a uniquely HUMAN view of conditions that led to the Cuban revolution. There are many accounts of the dry POLITICAL facets and facts. Kushner provides such detail of the environment that one FEELS as though one has visited that time and place; that it’s now placed in the reader’s own memories.

Donna Rueff

Rachel Kushner has published 2 more novels since Telex from Cuba:
The Flamethrowers (2013) was equally well-received.
The Mars Room was released on May 1, 2018.

May 2018


This month’s offering is in celebration of the third child born to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Catherine) on April 23, 2018; and of the pending marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018.

It also marks the passing of the Queen’s last corgi in the line started by Susan, who was a gift to then-Princess Elizabeth on her 18th birthday. Willow, a 14th generation corgi in that line, passed away in April 2018. The Queen’s love for that breed is widely known throughout the world.

Several of us in the senior reading group have become extremely fond of the Dalai Lama’s Cat 3-book series by David Michie. The books follow a kitten born in reduced circumstances who finds her way by accident—or perhaps Fate—into the Dalai Lama’s life and home through various stages of her life. Each book offers not only a lovely and heartwarming story, but also passes along lessons learned as she encounters people and events in the process of Living. As it turns out, lessons the cat learns are also pertinent and helpful for humans—what a coincidence! Now Michie has written another book every bit as heartwarming and helpful as those three books, but this one is “written” by a male corgi.

Like the DL’s cat, Nelson (as he is finally named about half way into the book) was born in unfavorable circumstances and rose to high office by sheer happenstance. He was born into a household that bred corgis in bad conditions, and whose humans were interested only in the corgis as money-making entities by selling or showing them. Nelson was the runt of his litter, but the one unforgiveable thing about him was that one ear refused to stand up straight. The breeders saw this floppy ear as a flaw, an imperfection, and saw Nelson as worthless to them since he could neither be shown nor sold…so they thought. He was, in fact, saved from a death sentence and whisked away to castle and Queen!

Nelson was very young at that time with many things to learn, starting with the most basic habits and training. Luckily, he had two older, more experienced corgis to help acclimate him. Winston and Margaret—like Nelson—were so named to fit aspects of their personalities. Winston was very old with special characteristics. He saw that the new corgi had potential to take over from him, and took on the new corgi as a trainee of sorts. And so the story unfolds.

As one might imagine from the treatment he had received in his early days, Nelson had a bad case of low self-esteem. The ear that flopped over made him flawed as a corgi in the eyes of many people. What could he do; what could he be? What was his purpose?

Of course, it’s not only this little corgi who asked that of himself. Every human with any sense of self wonders the same thing at some point in life. What is my purpose? Why am I here? This wonderful story provides some guidance to help us. Each chapter focuses on a particular issue that helps us look at our own lives to search for our purpose. Like the DL’s cat books, the lessons are so beautifully, painlessly, and gently taught that we absorb them without realizing it.

I leave it to each reader to discover for him- or herself what these lessons are. Each of us will take something personal and a bit different from this book.

I offer here Nelson’s description of the Queen:

“When you meet the Queen, she is exactly as you would expect her to be—in appearance, at least. But she has another quality that catches most people by surprise…Such is the Queen’s sense of calling that, wherever she goes, she carries with her an almost-tangible expectation that your own deepest wish, like hers, is to serve a greater purpose. To say that most people are caught unawares by this sensation would be an understatement. Expecting restrained and aloof, when they encounter Her Majesty’s gentle but firm expectation of benevolence, they find themselves wishing…to be the best that they can be. To act in accord with their highest ideals.” (p. xiii)

Perhaps that—to be the best that we can be—is the purpose we all have in common. We may each arrive there in different ways, each face different challenges, and Michie’s The Queen’s Corgi: On Purpose can offer gentle help with that part. Our individual best selves will be different, as well. That is as it should be. But the purpose we all share—maybe even our obligation—is to find and live our best selves.


If you wish to find out more about the Queen’s REAL corgis, this article is interesting:


Oh, one more thing: I leave you with the challenge to discover who Michael REALLY is.

April 2018


When I was in high school all those decades ago, I was firmly anchored to Earth and on the liberal arts track. I had little interest in the sciences, and NONE in physics. All those equations… are you kidding?? What would I need that for? What would I do with it, anyway? I don’t think it was unusual for most young women in those days to have the same attitude. I grew up and spent most of my adult life thinking: I don’t like science, and physics and astrophysics are WAY beyond anything I can comprehend.

Then I encountered the work of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who proved me wrong.

Chances are very good that you’ve encountered Tyson’s work in some way, too. He’s been at the forefront of discoveries about our universe for what turned out to be the most prolific decades of discovery and progress in his field. He has followed in the footsteps of Newton, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking, and many others. He and Carl Sagan met when Tyson was just 17 and already displaying his intense drive to pursue his field.

In fact, it was Tyson’s miniseries remake of the Carl Sagan classic Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that snagged my attention and subsequent interest. (Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote and directed the 2014 Tyson version available on DVD.) I surprised myself by understanding the material, and enjoying stepping back in time and learning about historical figures and discoveries. Since then, I’ve made a point of learning more about this subject--but I still stay away from equations.

Tyson’s latest work is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, now on the New York Times hardback non-fiction bestseller list for 46 WEEKS! That figure astonishes me, as does the indication that there must be millions of other people who are now interested in astrophysics--it’s not just for nerds anymore!

This book does exactly what it’s designed to do: it makes astrophysics accessible to any untrained reader in a way that can be consumed and digested in small, easily understandable bites. Readers don’t even need to read the chapters in order, although I do think it’s preferable.

Tyson tells us that the universe definitely is expanding, and why that’s known to be true. It’s also a fact that the same laws (e.g., gravity, speed of light) we’ve found and observed pertain throughout the universe. Following chapters discuss light; what exactly is out there in space; dark matter and dark energy. The latter two especially interest me, as their existence can only be divined by how the things AROUND those areas react to something unseen and (so far) invisible. They remind me of the mysteries where the dog DIDN’T bark.

Tyson explains what quantum mechanics, quarks, quasars, pulsars, protons, neutrons, electrons, hadrons, and many other things, are and what they do. Did you know that “for large cosmic objects, energy and gravity conspire to turn objects into spheres?” (p. 136) Or that our Milky Way “galaxy is flatter than the flattest flapjacks ever made?” (p. 139) We may not have the telescopes available to view “large cosmic objects” or our galaxy, but descriptions such as these allow the reader to visualize them. Also, an index is provided in case a reader just wants information about specific topics.

Tyson has done far too much in all forms of media throughout his career to include here. He’s primarily an astrophysicist at his “day job” as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He’s written a number of books, countless articles, makes public appearances to talk about his work, and my favorite, hosts Star Talk on radio and the NatGeo TV channel.

He interviews people from a wide variety of fields, and incorporates those interviews with the chosen topic for that show. Examples are: astronauts Mae Jemison and Scott Kelly; surfer Kelly Slater; singer Katy Perry; film directors James Cameron and Kevin Smith. Every person on shows I’ve seen has surprised me in a good way. Tyson also interviewed Stephen Hawking for his March 4 show—that’s just 10 days prior to Hawking’s death.

I noticed another job description listed for Tyson: that of “science communicator.” In fact, he won the Stephen Hawking Medal for Outstanding Communication in June 2017. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of such an honor. Tyson has promoted the learning and understanding of Science relentlessly for many years. He speaks and writes in a way that makes complicated concepts understandable and ACCESSIBLE to anyone who cares to listen or read this book or others he’s written.

He has a knack for peppering his talks and writings with little nuggets of humor, and his writing flows easily and plainly. He’s mastered the art of getting people to relax and not be intimidated by the material so they can learn almost effortlessly. Best of all, he’s inspired untold numbers of children to become interested in science; lit that spark of interest in their minds. In a nutshell, he’s made Science cool again. THAT, discoveries, and space exploration are what has changed since I was in high school. Science is now part of our everyday lives.

Tyson always ends his shows with closing thoughts that leave us thoughtful and reflective. His comments can be profound in their simplicity. It’s not surprising that the last chapter is the best part of this book and not to be missed. In his own words:

“The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.” (p. 205)

He goes on to list several things, of which my favorite is:

“The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and a mate.” (P. 206-207)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has given the world many gifts, but perhaps the greatest one is the cosmic perspective.


For complete information about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s career, publications, and everything you’d ever want to know about him:




Once can’t think of Neil deGrasse Tyson without the now late Stephen Hawking also coming to mind. Thus, the author wishes to offer the following.


Hawking’s eerie timing: SH born 1/8/1942; Galileo died 1/8/1642; SH died 3/14/2018 (“pi day”); Einstein born 3/14/1879.

Rare early-onset ALS: ravaged his body, but left his brain unharmed.

Technical and computer advances extended his life by 50 yrs. beyond expectation. In an odd way, it’s almost as if he was freed with nothing to do but THINK.

Discoveries & writing of others set precedents so that the world was more receptive to his ideas than they would have been in earlier times.

March 2018

The House of Unexpected Sisters
By Alexander McCall Smith

Whenever a new book in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is released, it’s an occasion to retreat to our favorite reading place for an uninterrupted afternoon of enjoyment with our old friends who remind us of the important things in life. Alexander McCall Smith’s 18th offering in this series, The House of Unexpected Sisters, is every bit as insightful and meaningful as its predecessors. Smith has maintained his high standards throughout this entire series, and #18 does not disappoint.

Although he is currently a Professor of Medical Law in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana,” according to his Amazon biography. This series takes place in Botswana, and it is obvious that he has a deep love for the country, culture, and people of that nation. In fact, “the old Botswana morality, the kindness that lay at the heart of that,” (p. 190) and respect for others constitute the basis for this series.

The detective at the heart of this series is Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” Botswanan woman, and owner of the Agency. Her idea to start such an unusual business in the city of Gaborone, Botswana, typifies her unusual approach to solving her cases. She is also an astute observer of human nature, particularly Botswanan human nature. She uses her creative mind and innately gentle nature in solving whatever odd or confounding cases come to the Agency. Her talent is in finding the correct solution to each case after gathering the facts, as she knows things are not always as they appear to be. She then seeks a solution that will be the best outcome for all involved.

This book, like the ones before it, presents several different cases or situations for Precious and her eccentric staff to resolve. Sometimes “cases” are merely favors for friends or family, with no monetary payment involved. Precious is a person for whom “payment” can mean bringing justice to an unjust situation, and her first case does just that. Charity, a widow with children to support, has been fired from her job at an office furniture store for supposedly being rude to a customer. Precious and her staff dig into the case to find the real reason for the firing. They find that this is one of the cases where the truth is not what it appears to be, and orchestrate a just correction.

In this book, Precious faces two issues of a personal nature. Her first husband, an abusive musician and probably the last person on earth she wants to see, has been sighted in town. While he makes no attempt to visit her (she made it clear in the past that she wants nothing to do with him), the information causes her to dread that he might contact her and will want something from her. Readers who remember Note from previous books will be surprised to learn how he has changed.

The second issue speaks to this book’s title. Precious thinks she has been an only child for all of her 42 years, and that she knows all of the few people who share the Ramotswe last name. However, a visit with a woman in her hometown reveals that this may not be true. She is given a newspaper clipping with a photo of 3 nurses, one of whom has her same last name. Naturally she must discover if they are related, and finds they are indeed half-sisters! Instead of feeling joy, she feels shock and dismay that her late father, whom she has revered and deeply loved for her entire life, seems to have fathered a child with another woman while he was married to her mother. That’s the only conclusion she can draw based on the information she has…but is it correct? If it is true, it would be completely out of character for the man she knew. Her world is suddenly shaken by what seems to be his betrayal.

I won’t spoil it and give away the answer (or why the title uses the plural “sisters”), but readers of this series can trust that the resolution is a good one for all concerned. The only question is HOW it is resolved, and readers will not be disappointed. As always, Smith cleverly manages to show us how a good resolution to one issue helps bring about the same for the remaining ones. In setting Precious’s world right, he does the same for his readers.