Three childhood books that changed my life

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I’ve always been a voracious reader (I started reading when I was 3), and what I read helped to shape my world. While I was in library school I took several courses dealing with children’s literature, and that spurred me to think about some of the books that most influenced me in my formative years. I’m sure the list is different for everyone, and it was difficult to narrow it down, but here is my top-three list: The Enchanted Castle (1907) by E. Nesbit, Freckles (1904) by Gene Stratton-Porter, and Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) by Jean Webster. I realize, writing this, that although I grew up in the 1960’s, my formative literature was definitely from an earlier era! That says more about my parents’ influence than anything else.

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I first read The Enchanted Castle when I was about seven years old. I had read lots of fairy tales, animal stories (especially Thornton Burgess’s books), Halloween stories about witches and such, as well as realistic fiction, but The Enchanted Castle was the first book I read that really blurred the lines between fantasy and reality to the point that I couldn’t tell where the lines were. I was fascinated by this, by the notion of alternate realities, the possibility that a fantasy could perhaps be real. To this day I can’t think of another book that, at least for me, did such an artful job of riding that edge.  E. Nesbit wrote many wonderful books, and I have enjoyed them all, but The Enchanted Castle still holds special magic for me.  Of course it made me want to read more fantasy, so I read other Nesbit books, Edward Eager’s Half Magic and Knight’s Castle , C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Narnia chronicles, later Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (still one of my all-time favorites, though those weren’t published until I was a teenager), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and lots more. Hmm, all but Eager are British authors — they seem to have a special gift for fantasy.

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I was introduced to Freckles when I was ten or eleven, and have reread it many times, as well as all Gene Stratton-Porter’s other fiction. I was brought up to appreciate nature and the environment, but this book really drove home ideas about the need to revere Mother Nature’s majesty and bounty.  The story is painful in ways, because at the same time that it exalts the glories of nature, the main storyline is about logging old-growth swampland and destroying the very Mother Nature the book celebrates.  Porter was trying to get people to see what was happening before it was too late.

Freckles is a story about a young man (an orphan, by the way) who leaves the city for a job as guard of a large timber lease in dense Indiana swampland, the Limberlost. His conversion from fearful city boy to ardent lover of nature is assisted by a great cast of characters, including the memorable Bird Woman who goes all over the countryside photographing wildlife. Another of Stratton-Porters novels, A Girl of the Limberlost, is set in the same area, with some overlapping characters including the Bird Woman.

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Gene Stratton-Porter in her outdoor gear

Gene Stratton-Porter was a remarkable woman, a pioneer in conservation thought, who pursued her early career in writing, nature photography, and conservation largely in secret. She was the real-life “Bird Woman” of her novels, photographing birds, moths, and other wildlife at all hours, in incredibly difficult conditions, in order to preserve it and share it with the world. She only agreed to write novels so that her publisher would print her non-fiction nature books.  I was strongly influenced by both her and her writings to be a more ardent environmentalist and a woman who stands by her values (whether they are popular or not).

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The first time I read Daddy-Long-Legs I was about nine years old.  There were many orphan novels written in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries; I read and re-read lots of them, including Understood Betsy, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Jane Eyre, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom, among others. Daddy-Long-Legs stands out in my memory for several reasons. We meet Judy Abbott as a young adult of eighteen rather than a child. Unlike most orphan novels of the period, she has grown up entirely in an orphanage, never experiencing a traditional home setting. She leaves the orphanage for the first time in order to attend college.

The novel is told in the form of Judy’s letters to her benefactor (she calls him “Daddy-Long-Legs,” thus the book’s title), who is paying for her college education (at a time when women going to college was still out of the ordinary).  This was the first novel I read that was in letter form, and I was very taken by that writing style, and impressed by how well I was able to come to know the characters despite what seemed (to me) to be a difficult form of delivery.  It helped me to see how I too could write letters that went beyond delivering facts, to set a scene and bring my reader into my world in a more complete way. 

Judy was experiencing the world outside the orphanage for the first time, and I was enthralled by her fascination with everything around her and her joie-de-vivre, though at the same time appalled at all the things she had missed growing up. She had never seen paper money, never been on a train or in a car, never set foot inside a house, never known anything of what it meant to have a family. It made me realize more fully just how fortunate I was, and how much I had experienced that I took for granted. I think this novel, more than any other, made me realize how different each of our experiences is, how varied our opportunities are. It made me more actively appreciative of my own childhood, and helped me to value each person’s perspective on life.

So there you have my three book picks. What about you? What three childhood books most influenced your life?

 

HST and the Cold War in the Far East

If Harry Truman had had his way he would have continued being a senator from Missouri instead of presiding over the Senate as Vice President of the United States.  One rainy afternoon on April 12 1945, while Truman was gathered with Democratic bigwigs in the Speaker of the House’s office for a drink and some gossip,  he received a message to call the White House as soon he could.  He made the call and was told told to get to the Executive Mansion as fast as possible.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died in Hot Springs, Georgia.  Harry Truman was now the President of the United States.  In a few minutes he had gone from the presiding officer of the United States Senate to Commander in Chief of American armed forces worldwide.

Truman would be president for the last four months of World War II.  He would be the one who made the decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan to bring the war to a sudden close.  To the west of Japan, the Korean peninsula, which had been under control of Japan, was liberated in the north by the Soviet Union and in south by the United States.  The Americans and the Russians agreed on the 38th parallel as the border between South Korea and North Korea.  Both countries withdrew their troops in 1948, the same year Harry Truman pulled a political upset and beat New York governor  Thomas Dewey in a close presidential election. The president wanted to get the United States off the war footing where it had been for the last nine years.  He thought it was time for federal government to spend money on the domestic front:  housing, schools, etc.  After his election, Truman submitted a budget that cut the military expenses by a lot.  Most of the defense dollars went to support the American military in Europe, where the Russians had gained control of Eastern Europe and closed the border between East and West Germany  (with British, French, and American sectors of occupancy).  By this time the Russians had successfully tested their own atom bomb, causing the men who advised the president on national security to pause and reflect the course the nation was taking with its foreign policy.

So soon after the close of World War II, the President of the United States did not have the security advisers the occupant of the White House does today.  The National Security Council was only three years old in 1950, and this period was before  the likes of Henry Kissinger,  Zbigniew Brzezinski, and other global security experts. The  United States and its western allies had won World War II along with the Soviet Union, who had taken  over Eastern Europe and as Winston Churchill had said famously in the speech had gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘Iron Curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia;...”(1)

Two years later, the Chinese Communists sent the Nationalists high tailing to Formosa, thereby winning the Chinese Civil War.

Even though the United States had been involved in the liberation of  South Korea from the Japanese, that part of Korea was not included in the nation’s defense plans.  At this point, the United States had it’s hands full governing Japan as part of its occupation duties, so President Truman and his Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to leave South Korea to the United Nations, who wanted to hold elections across the entire country, both north or south.  The Communists in the north opposed this as they had in eastern Europe.   The chief executive of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, agreed with the UN, and threatened to invade the People’s Republic of Korea, so when the United States withdrew their troops from the south, they left the South Korean leader with limited arms for his army.   One volume of the  Foreign Relations of the United States for 1950(2) describes the status of the Republic of Korea (ROK) from the point of the United States Department of State in the six months prior to the start of the Korean War.

The correspondence between the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Department of State personnel  revealed two problems causing dissension   between the two countries:  inflation in ROK and that nation’s movement  away from democratic processes. (3)   In April 1950, the focus changed markedly when Secretary Acheson received a communication from Korea describing the Korean Army ‘s victory over an estimated 600 North Korean trained guerrillas near the border. (4)

In a May issue of U. S. News and World Report, Senator Tom Connelly (D. Tex), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated that the United States would eventually abandon South Korea to the Communists.  The Secretary, Mr. Acheson, and others in the State Department fought back, denying that Connelly’s opinion was the policy of the United States government.   President Rhee told Ambassador John Muccio he resented the United States’ reluctance to supply his armed forces with surplus F-51 planes, particularly when the North Koreans were building their armed forces. (5)   Within weeks the American Embassy in Seoul sent recommendations for furnishing F-51s to the South Koreans. (6)

Throughout May 1950, Ambassador Muccio tried to get the Secretary and other top officials of the State Department to mention Korea in speeches and other communications with the press and invite people from other government departments to visit Korea when they were in the Far East. (7)

On June 23,  the State Department received a recommendation from the embassy to reduce personnel in KMAG (U.S. Military Advisory Group to the Republic of Korea) because the ROK Army was doing so well on its own. (8)  Early the next morning the North Korean  Army attacked across the 38th parallel.

My next blog:  “HST and Korean War”

(1) William Manchester and Paul Reid,  The Last Lion:  Defender of the Realm, p. 960.

(2) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950: Korea, Documents 1-58 https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1950v07/comp1

(3)Documents 1-24.

(4)Document  25

(5) Documents 31- 33, 35-38.

(6) Document 41

(7) Documents 45, 54

(8) Document 58

For further reading

Clay Blair.  The Forgotten War:  America in Korea, 1950-1953.   Part I,  pages 3-59

Robert J. Dovonan.  Conflict and Crisis:  The Presidency of Harry Truman

Eric F. Goldman.  The Crucial Decade and After:  America, 1945-1960.

Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas.  The Wise Men:  Six Friends and the World They Made.

David McCullough.  Truman.

Cabell Phillips.  The Truman Presidency.

The Other Self-Help Section

The older I get, the less I know for sure. I’ve always prided myself on being a bookworm and looking to literature for all the answers, and the stacks of books at my house get pretty overwhelming sometimes. Being overwhelmed by my ever-growing reading list is a little counter-productive to my search for answers, so in recent years I’ve turned more and more to children’s books for their simple wisdom. Board books in particular are a favorite lately – you can gnaw on them as you read without doing too much damage to the book. How great is that?

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Grapes fill my heart with happiness, for real.

Monique Gray Smith’s My Heart Fills With Happiness is written from the perspective of a little girl going down the list of things that make her happy. Such as singing, dancing, and walking barefoot in the grass. Those things make me happy too, although my singing and dancing might not make those around me happy. The book invites the reader to dwell on the little joys in life, and the little joys amount to a lot of joy in the heart if you let them.

Keeping on the happiness theme, Ball by Mary Sullivan is a story about a day in the life of a dog whose greatest joy in life is chasing her ball. The book begins in a flurry of excited activity when her little human wakes up and plays ball with her while getting ready for school. When the little human leaves for school, our little dog is bereft. She spends a lot of time trying to play ball with the laundry basket, the cat, and the baby human. When she naps, she even dreams about playing ball. Now, you may wonder why this dog doesn’t get another hobby, perhaps one like writing, which is best done in the dark abyss of solitude. I wonder why too. That’s not the point – I can’t solve her problems for her. Anyway, eventually the little human gets home and, oh my gosh, so much joy and excitement. The moral of the story is, joy is best when shared, or something like that.

 

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Ball‘s dedication. *sobs*

Moving on to my current mood, I’m Grumpy by Jennifer and Matthew Holm is a book I should really read every morning with my second cup of coffee. Grumpy Cloud is woken up early by chirping birds; he loses his hat in a gust of wind; he drops his ice cream; he gets rained on. (Wait, what?) And yet, after all of those small tragedies happen, he says, “I’m just grumpy because,” leading me to be believe that the real problem is not his circumstances but how he relates to him. When his happy friend Sunny tries to cheer him up, he finally explodes in a torrent of rain and thunder, after which outburst no one wants to be around him. Is there anyone reading this who cannot identify with Grumpy Cloud? (Or Sunny Sun, for that matter?) The good news is, Grumpy Cloud’s moral conscience starts to nagging him, and he makes amends to the beings that he hurt, gaining a little humility and an attitude of gratitude in the process. Grumpy Cloud occupies a special place in a shadowy corner of my heart.

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Of course, some board books are more terrifying than inspiring.

And because I tend to find the best wisdom and advice in the poetry section, here’s a nugget of humility from Judith Viorst’s collection What Are You Glad About? What Are You Mad About? :

“Trying”

I only cheated a tiny bit.

I never thought you’d notice it.

And besides, I wanted so badly to be the winner.

And it’s true that I told a little white lie

When I said that I hadn’t eaten the pie.

But I was starving, and it was forever till dinner.

This toy that I shouldn’t have taken but did

Belonged, I admit, to a whole other kid.

But I’m hoping you won’t think I’m a terrible sinner.

I know what I shouldn’t. I know what I should.

And I’m trying my very best to be good.

I’m trying my very best – but I’m still a beginner.

Celebrating Audiobook Month

audiobook icon      June is Audiobook Month!

When I was a kid (back in the dark ages when recordings were 12-inch LP records), my brothers and I loved sick days. Not because we wanted to miss school, but because being home in bed was a chance to listen to our recordings of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass read by the talented Australian actor Cyril Ritchard (here’s a brief excerpt). The recordings, four LPs each, captivated us, and to this day my ideas about Alice, the Duchess, and all the other Lewis Carroll characters are influenced by those recordings.

We also had a few other spoken recordings, such as Lionel Barrymore’s rendition of A Christmas Carol and Thornton Burgess reading from Old Mother West Wind. Later we acquired a wonderful recording of J. R. R. Tolkien reading passages from his books – the Elvish poetry is especially fascinating, though my favorite reading is “Riddles in the Darkfrom The Hobbit (when Bilbo first encounters Golum, deep underground). But these spoken recordings were relative rarities in our lives.

Today, audiobooks are plentiful, ranging from early children’s books such as The Cat in the Hat through a complete reading of The Bible. You can checkout an audiobook version of The Hobbit, James Patterson’s latest hit, or The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And you can listen to non-fiction too, including books such as Temple Grandin’s The Autistic BrainJames Kaplan’s biography Sinatra: The Chairman, and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.

There are many reasons people choose audiobooks; some like to read while commuting, exercising, or doing housework or chores. Others simply find it more relaxing or they are able to focus better on the words. Those with vision issues or reading challenges often find audiobooks much more enjoyable than trying to read print books. And audiobooks are portable! You can listen at home, in the car, at the beach, while walking or jogging, or anywhere else you happen to be.

There are numerous educational benefits to book-listening as well. Studies have shown that children who listen to audiobooks show a 67% increase in motivation, a 52% increase in accuracy, and a 40% increase in recall compared to print reading alone. Comprehension goes up by a whopping 76%, which makes sense since 85% of what we learn comes via listening. Listening increases vocabulary, aids in learning pronunciation, improves reading speed, and allows children to experience books at a higher reading level than they can read themselves.

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So if you thought using audiobooks wasn’t ‘real’ reading, think again! Audiobooks have as much to offer as print books; they’re neither more nor less worthy of attention, just different.

Audiobooks come in a variety of forms:

  • Most libraries offer CD audiobooks. And don’t forget that in addition to your home library’s collection, your library card gives you access to all the FRL library collections PLUS all of the NC Cardinal consortium libraries.
  • Playaways offer preloaded books such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Lee Child’s One Shot, each single title on a small device you can slip in a pocket and take anywhere.
  • You can check out e-audiobooks from our library website, including e-Inc and OneClickdigital for all ages, and NC Kids for additional children’s books.
  • For teens, SYNC is offering different free e-audiobooks every week through the summer.

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a few of the Playaways (top left) and CD audiobooks available at Macon County Public Library

Children’s audiobooks come in several forms these days. In addition to standard CD audiobooks, our libraries offer book kits which include both a book and a corresponding CD audiobook recording as a single checkout. Some favorites are Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Sandra Boynton’s Frog Trouble and Rhinoceros Tap, and the classic MadelineAnother book-audio combination is Vox books, which have an audio recording built right into each book. Don’t Push the Button and Going Places are examples of this recently-introduced format. And as I already mentioned, there are several e-audiobook sources accessible from the library website.

Many audiobooks are narrated by a single person, while others have multiple readers for a more theatrical effect. I happen to love books read by their authors. Hearing an author reading his or her own words gets right to the source. And often there is an accent to add even more to the experience. Some author-readings that are rated particularly engaging are Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

But books read by others can be equally appealing. Some recent award-winning audiobooks are Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train, Daniel Silva’s The English Spy, Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale, and Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy.

If you haven’t tried an audiobook before, Audiobook Month is a great time to give this format a try. If you are already an audiobook lover, what are some of your favorites?

Barbara Tuchman

Recently, when I was reorganizing my personal library, I noticed I had a number of books by the American writer Barbara  Wertheim Tuchman, including one I used in my last blog, The Zimmerman Telegram. Her topics ranged time wise and  geographically  from  ancient history  to the twentieth century and from the Far East to the Americas.  Like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ms Tuchman wrote history for the lay reader, not the academic.

Barbara Wertheim was born in New York, educated in a private school there and went to college at Radcliffe, a private women’s college in Massachusetts.  Two years after graduating from Radcliffe in 1933, she went to work for Nation Magazine, which  was published by her father.  She published her first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, in 1938.  Her  second book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, came out in 1956.  In 1958, she delved into the United States’ involvement in World War I with The Zimmermann Telegram. Two years later  came  The Guns of August, her take on the opening months of the Great War and her first Pulitzer Prize.   After that,  in 1966, Tuchman investigated the world in the years leading up to World War I in  The Proud Tower.   Next, she used her experience in the Far East as background for her book about the American experience in China, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, centered around General Joseph Stilwell, who was the ranking American general in the China-Burma theater in World War II.  That book, published in 1971,  earned Tuchman  her second Pulitzer Prize.

Before her death in 1989, Tuchman wrote five more books.   Notes from China was her view of China during a six-week trip she took in 1972.   Nine years later, she published Practicing History, a combination of essays on the writing of history and reprints of articles she wrote in the 1930s and thereafter.

Tuchman’s book about 14th century Europe,  A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century,  concerned Enguerrand de Coucy, a french nobleman who lived through a turbulent time fraught with wars, disease, and a little Ice age.   Why do governments develop policies that go against their best interests?   This is the question Barbara Tuchman tries to  answer  in The March of Folly:  From Troy to Vietnam.   Her last book, The First Salute: A View of the American Revolutioncame in 1988, the year before she died from a stroke at the age of 77.  I’ll have more to say about this book and Stilwell and the American Experience in China below.

Tuchman’s interest in China stemmed from her stint as a volunteer researcher at the Institute of Pacific Relations immediately after graduation.  As such, she spent an extended period in the Far East, include a month in China in the mid-1930s.  Her book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, is not really a biography of General Joseph Stilwell, who spent most of his military career in that part of the world, but rather she uses Stilwell as symbol of the American experience in the country through the first half of the 20th century.

When Stilwell first arrived in China in 1911, it was a long way from being a modern country.  But rather, it was broken up into regions governed by warlords.  At the end of World War I, the Japanese took over German concessions in China  and gradually strengthened their hold on Chinese  territory.  Stilwell was in and out of China during the 1920s, during which Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution (Kuomintang) died, and his place  was taken as the leader of the Kuomintang by Chiang Kai-Shek.  “Vinegar Joe” was Stilwell’s nickname  he earned stationed at Fort Benning, where he had a reputation of not suffering fools gladly. By the end of the 1930’s Stilwell had been promoted to Colonel.  The Sino-Japanese War started in 1938, but Stilwell stayed in China until May 1939.  On his way home, Stilwell found he had been promoted to Brigadier General.

In World War II, Stilwell rose among the general officer ranks to become a four star general in command of the China-Burma-India theater.  He attended the Cairo Conference in 1943 along with  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, representing the Free Chinese.  His first order of business was to open a road from China into Burma, which was under Japanese control and posing a threat to India.  But, as usual, Stilwell had a hard time getting individuals and allies he could work with.  He didn’t trust his allies (the Chinese and the British), and most of all, he didn’t get along with Chiang Kai-Shek.  He was recalled to the states in October 1944 and worked there until his death in 1946,

Tuchman addresses the American Revolution, partially in the The March of Folly and to a greater extent in The First Salute.   She doesn’t attempt to cover the whole war, instead sets the Revolutionary War in the conflict between Great Britain and Holland and France. The book opens on November 16, 1776, when an American ship, Andrew Doria, flying the flag of the Continental Congress from her mast,  sails into the harbor of St. Eustatius on  the Dutch West Indies, her cannon saluting Fort Orange. Then the fort returned the salute, making it the first time an American flag was recognized by a foreign power.   

When Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of World War I, he found the Royal Navy  had changed very little since end of the 18th century, the period Barbara Tuchman writes about.  Tuchman finds a lot to criticize both the British government and its military leaders for.  Neither those who ruled nor those who commanded took the trouble to find  out about the geography of America or about cost or what it took to transport soldiers and/or materiel from Great Britain to there.  What they did realize was the importance of keeping control of the West Indies which was a depot for Dutch merchants to export critical supplies to the colonies.  Admiral George Rodney was given the task of capturing St. Eustatius.

Rodney, according Tuchman, was a class above his Royal Navy colleagues.  “Thinking outside the box” would be the modern phrase that would suit the admiral well.  However, when giving the assignment to keep the French fleet from reaching Yorktown and trapping Cornwallis and British army, he failed.  To find why, you will have to read the book.

Tuchman’s books:

The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938)*

Bible and the Sword (1956)

The Zimmermann Telegram  (1958)

The Guns of August (1960)

The Proud Tower  (1966)

Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971)

Notes from China (1972)*

A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Practicing History (1981)

The March of Folly:  From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988)

  • – Not available in NC Cardinal

 

 

Repeat Readings

Several months ago I wrote about movies that I had re-watched again and again; specifically, movies I had seen at least 5 times. I talked about why I’d ended up watching those films as much as I had, and about the movies themselves.  I actually got a fairly big response to that blog posting – apparently lots of folks either liked the particular movies I mentioned, or they just shared the same habit of re-watching some of their own personal favorites.

I later realized that for some people, the urge to re-read favorite books is also strong.  While for some, reading a book once and moving on in search of something new is the preferred method, for others the desire to re-visit a favorite title is compelling.

Probably one of the biggest examples is how people read and re-read the holy writings of the world’s various faiths.  Or beyond that, for hundreds of years people have read the writings of the great poets, turning to them on multiple times.  Shakespeare, as well, is a perennial favorite.  I think part of the appeal in this class of writing is the depth of what is there – multiple readings reveal new insights, especially as we grow older.

Beyond the Bible, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, multiple readings are also a joy for readers of fiction, especially if the work is longer or part of a series.  I have read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien multiple times, and so have others I’ve spoken to.  I know a group of people who read and re-read the entire Harry Potter novels (in order, of course!) – sometimes on an annual basis.  I’m also aware of the following popular novel series that are re-read by fans:

One of the keys to this particular category is that many of the series can be started by fairly young readers and still have enough depth and detail to make an older reader want to pick them up.  The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (see earlier link), in particular, follow a young set of protagonists as they age to young adulthood.  If read for the first time as a younger person, re-reading can evoke not only the pleasure of “discovering what happens” but also re-capturing in some sense the youth we may have had as first-time readers.

Another set of titles that are often re-read may or may not lead the reader to other books in what is actually a series, although many may not be aware there are sequels to the title that they are re-reading.  Titles that come to mind are The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Tarzan of the Apes. [Although the latter title should make one want to read the next title in the series (The Return of Tarzan), as the first book really is a bit of a cliffhanger.]

Still another group of titles are those that are not necessarily part of a series, but where the author either creates a memorable heroine or hero or does such a strong job establishing the setting that they create a desire to re-visit the author’s creation.  Classic examples of this might be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Little Women by Louis May Alcott, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  (If you want to get a multitude of opinions from a group of Dickens fans, ask them to name the best of his 14 or so novels)

Besides individual titles, there are authors who have such a strong voice that people come back to their works, whether novels or short stories, repeatedly, regardless of genre or subject matter.  Three such authors that come to mind for me are P.G. Wodehouse, Neal Stephenson, and Roger Zelazny. I would read or re-read pretty much anything they wrote.  And I could name more, of course – all readers have favorite authors, but those three seem striking for how they create interest whether they are writing about golf, Baroque history, or the possible end of the world.

Finally, there are those “quirky” books that maybe no one else you know re-reads, but you find yourself picking them up again and again. I’ve heard of folks who re-read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.  I think the title I’ll pick as an illustration of this type is one from an author I just mentioned, Roger Zelazny.

Late in his life and writing career, he wrote a book called A Night in the Lonesome October. It was his last book, and one of his five personal favorites.  The plot is pretty bizarre, incorporating a Chthulu-like end of the world scenario, and is narrated by Jack the Ripper’s dog.  But one of the reasons I read it, besides the references to other novels, movies, and fictional characters, is that the book has thirty-one chapters, each linked to October 1-31, and for some reason, I have often picked it up on October 1st and read a chapter each night as the month progresses.  I’ve done this enough times that, while it does not happen every year, it does seem to be becoming a tradition with me.

 

So do you have any books you re-read?  Share some in the comments, if so; and happy re-reading!

Neutrality: an Explosive Step Closer to War

 

When I started this series detailing how the United States became involved in the Great War (afterwards World War I), I envisioned two parts, but when I realized how complicated the story was, I realized it  was going to take three.    Last month’s episode involved the sinking of the Lusitania.  The current blog describes how German agents in the United States used sabotage to keep American products from reaching the Allies, principally Great Britain and France.   The third, in April, will narrate Germany’s attempts to involve the United States in a conflict with Mexico, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and how that finally tried President Wilson’s patience.

Black-Tom

President Wilson’s attempt to keep America neutral was difficult for a number of reasons: first, American businesses were making money off  the war.   Second, there was a large percentage of foreign born persons living in the United States.  The 1910 Census showed 1.21 million were British and almost double that were German.  The latter population was targeted by the German Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich Andreas Hermann von Bernstorff, who was given the assignment of organizing a spy and sabotage network to keep Americans from helping the Allies with their war effort.   The German military and naval attaches did the hands-on work to see to it the Imperial Government’s plans were carried out. (1)

In 1915, the German network was at work on the New York waterfront, using crew members from ships that had been quarantined for the length  of the war to do their dirty work.  Bombs went off on either vessels that were docked or ships that had left New York and were at sea.  American authorities suspected German sabotage but could prove nothing.   At that point the federal government had no agency like the FBI or the ATF to investigate and make arrests in cases like they do today.   Instead, the Justice Department turned to the New York City Police Department.  Howard Blum’s book Dark Invasion traces that story.

New York was not only the place where German agents were carrying out acts of sabotage.   One was caught trying to blow up a newly built dam on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico.   Later, another confessed to blowing up a black powder magazine on Mare Island, California.  In June 1915, a man of German descent, Erich Muenter, using an alias, set off a bomb inside the U. S. Capitol in Washington and then took a train to Long Island and shot financier J. P. Morgan.  He was arrested soon after but died in jail before he could tried.  (2)

Two of Germany’s top agents in New York were Franz von Papen and Franz von Rintelen.   Von Papen was posted to Washington as a military attache in the German embassy.  Papen’s colleague von Rintelen was a junior in the Admiralty staff who had worked in a New York bank before the war, and was sent there to oversee his nation’s efforts to undermine American attempts to finance and supply Great Britain and France’s war. German agents both in New York and Baltimore used real and shell companies as fronts.  For example, Norddeutsche Lloyd (NDL) was a real German corporation, while the Eastern Forwarding Company (EFCO) was not. Von Rintelen set up cells in east coast ports and New Orleans; the members of each one did not know about the cells in other cities.  Eventually the American declared both men personna non grata and expelled them from the country.  With help from Room 40 British cryptanalysts, Rintelen was taken off the ship he was traveling on by British authorities and made a prisoner of war before being extradited back to the United States to face charges stemming from his activities there.

However, the biggest case of sabotage involved the Black Tom Munitions Depot in New Jersey.  The depot was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the entity responsible for shipping war materials destined for Great Britain, France, and Russia.  On the evening of July 16, 1916, a vast explosion ripped through the terminal, shattering windows in Manhattan, damaging the Statue of the Liberty, and waking sleeping people over a wide area.  Night watchmen on duty at the terminal sounded the alarm when they first spotted flames, but with over two million tons of explosives on site a disaster was waiting to happen.  The fact that the railroad had been violating federal regulations by keeping explosives on railroad cars and barges tied up to the pier masked the sabotage carried out by German agents. Not until a Congressional investigation in the 1930s was the truth uncovered. (3)

Further to the south, Baltimore was another port of interest to Germans, especially when the Imperial Navy constructed two commercial submarines, designed bypass the Royal Navy blockade of the German coast.  The crews of these ships were ostentatiously civilians but in reality, for the most part, belonged to the Imperial Navy.    The first of the two submarines, U-Deutschland, arrived in Baltimore harbor on July 10, 2016.     When the resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the U-Deutschland was converted to a warship.

(1)   British spies were active in the United States as well.  Christopher Andrew’s books on the MI5, the British Secret Service,  listed below, outlines their means for keeping track of the Germans.

(2) Muenter was a German professor at Harvard until he disappeared in 1906 after poisoning his wife.  When he surfaced nine years later, he had re-married and was called Frank Holt.  Before his adventure in Washington and Long Island, he volunteered to help the agents of the German IIIB network in New York.  Blum,  pp. 3-11,  279-333.

(3) Witcover.

For further reading:

Christopher Andrew,  Defend the Realm:  the Authorized History of MI5.    pp.  71-79

Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only,  pp.  30-50

Christopher Andrew,  Her Majesty’s Secret Service,  pp. 86-127.

Howard Blum,  Dark Invasion: 1915, Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America.

Robert Koenig, The Fourth Horseman: One Man’s Mission to Wage the Great War in America.

Jules Witcover,  Sabotage at Black Tom:  Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America.

Something about Seuss

While it’s just past us this year, mark your calendars for 2018!  The day we can get away with dressing up as a Cat in the Hat, a Daisy Head Mayzie, or a Thing One or Two.

March 2nd is a big day in the world of young readers.  It’s the day we honor Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.  It’s referred to as Read Across America Day.

Why March 2nd?  It’s his birthday!  Dr. Seuss was born on March 2, 1904.  If he was still living he would be 113 years old!  We honor him because he helped create a wacky world of reading for young and not so young kids and the messages in his books are timeless.  While he wasn’t truly a “Dr.” he did receive his first honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Dartmouth in 1955.

Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated 44 books for children. 40 of the 44 are written in rhyme!  His works range from Green Eggs and Ham to The Cat in the Hat to Hop on Pop.  While his books are geared towards children you can always find things we adults need to take heed of.  For example, the motivating Oh, the Thinks You Can Think instills in the reader that you are only limited by what you can think.  My take on it is that the sky is the limit and the only limits are those you put on yourself.  Over the years it has become a favorite for graduation gifts.

The Cat in the Hat was published in 1957.  Dr. Seuss was concerned about children not learning to read.  Some thought it was those boring Dick and Jane primers.  Houghton Mifflin challenged him to write a children’s book with no more than 225 different words from a list of 348.  The result was The Cat in the Hat.

Green Eggs and Ham was the result of a challenge issued to Dr. Seuss by publisher Bennett Cerf telling him he bet he couldn’t write a book with 50 or fewer different words.  This one went on to be his all-time best selling title.

Dr. Seuss was also known for his politically motivated titles such as The Sneetches, Horton Hears a Who!, and Yertle the Turtle.  Man, was he ever talented with the ability to take something serious, put his wacky characters into the mix and rhyme like nobody’s business for a story that spoke volumes on topics such as social injustice and war.  Let’s not forget The Lorax.  Did you know that in 1989 this book was banned in a California school because it was thought it would put the logging industry in a poor light and turn children against it?  You see the community where this school is located depended on the logging industry.  As a counter to The Lorax, the logging community published The Truax.

Some people don’t care for Dr. Seuss.  Gasp!  That can’t be true!  But, it is.  All that rhyming can begin to wear you down after a while.  I will admit to hiding a certain title of his, Fox in Socks, from my own children when they were very little.  My daughter reminded me just yesterday that I also hid The Cat in the Hat and refused to read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back at some point in her childhood.  Those I do not remember but I distinctly remember sliding Fox in Socks between the couch cushions on at least one occasion.  Don’t all parents do that at some point?  Full disclosure:  I do love Dr. Seuss!!!  I am a children’s librarian after all.  The kids were just at that read the same thing 5,000 times stage and I had to keep my sanity somehow.

Whether you could take Dr. Seuss or leave him we must admit that he continues to have a definite impact on keeping kids engaged in reading through his rhyme, wacky characters, crazy settings, zany illustrations, and nonsensical way of telling a story.  I mean, we still celebrate his birthday!  Or maybe it comes down to us just wanting an excuse to dress up in wacky outfits?

me-as-cat-in-hat
It’s hard to see, but I am holding my tail!

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of eBooks

One of the things about doing a bit of a retrospective of where you’ve been in the last year is that you occasionally realize things that sort of slid by you when you were actually experiencing them.

While compiling my list of top 10 recommendations of books I read in 2016 , I did a count of how many book titles I actually read last year.  Turns out since I keep a reading history – you can do this too in your online library account:

cardinal-screenthat I read 100 books, averaging about one every 3 or 4 days.

This surprised me, as 2016 may have been one of my biggest years ever for reading that many titles.  I may have surpassed that during the summers when I was 10-12, but I’ve generally found less time for reading as a working adult, a husband, and a father of a young child. So how in the world did I read that many books?  I believe it was the fact that 80 of the 100 books I read were in the form of an eBook.

Now please know from the start that I am in no way denigrating the “true book” experience – I too am a bibliophile, as one might expect from a librarian. I love the physical properties of a book: the tactile sensation of turning the pages, the smell of an older volume.  I probably have more volumes of books in my home than the average — it reminds me of the joke I used to tell: “What do you get when a professor marries a librarian? 15 bookcases full of books.”

Nevertheless, in the world I live in now I never could have reached 100 titles read in one year were it not for eBooks.  Here’s how it happened…

I do have a Kindle, but I must confess that a dedicated eReader has not been the primary platform for me and eBooks.  No, the device I read eBooks on is my smartphone.

To make this work, it took several different factors – one was the Overdrive app.

“OverDrive Media Console is a proprietary, freeware application developed by OverDrive, Inc. for use with its digital distribution services for libraries, schools, and retailers. The application enables users to access audiobooks, eBooks, periodicals, and videos borrowed from libraries and schools—or purchased from booksellers—on [various]devices…” — Wikipedia

This handy application (available in the Apple and Android universes, as well as others) is fairly easy to download, and, as stated above, free!

The second factor is the fact that by far the majority of US public libraries have chosen the Overdrive app to allow access to their eBook collections. You DID know that almost all public libraries have eBook collections, right?  Sometimes I wonder when I read about people touting various “for profit” paywall sources for eBooks – I’ve paid for less than six eBooks total.  I read library-sourced eBooks almost exclusively. Why not?  Who wouldn’t want free?

So big factor one and big factor two = FREE!

One of the nice things about the Overdrive app is the ability to download the book you want, instead of streaming.  Once it’s downloaded (and you have the choice of a download version compatible with Kindles or a more general standard called ePub) you don’t need an internet connection to read the book (which also saves on battery power for your device, not to mention data used from your phone’s service plan).  You can also choose the font size, the screen brightness, etc.  This makes it easy to read on the beach, in the car (while someone else is driving, of course), or even at night with a black screen / white letters that’s easy on your night vision.  Then it is quite convenient to pick up your device and read while you wait at the doctor’s office (instead of reading the year-old Sports Illustrated or the even older Better Homes and Gardens), while you are in a long line at the Post Office during the holiday mailing season, while you are waiting at your child’s basketball practice, or even in front of the fireplace on a rainy night instead of picking up a physical book.  When you put all of that spare/possibly wasted time together, you too can read 100 books a year.

SO…if you have a portable device like a tablet, phablet, or smartphone, start by making sure your library card is updated and ready to go.  You can do that by accessing your library account online:   the “My Account” button in the upper right hand corner of this webpage – http://fontana.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/home

(Or of course coming into a Fontana Regional Library branch in person, or calling your local branch…)

Once you know your account is “good to go,” travel to either the iTunes App store for Apple products: [https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/overdrive-library-ebooks-and-audiobooks/id366869252?mt=8];

Or for Android devices, go to the Google Play store: [https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.overdrive.mobile.android.mediaconsole&hl=en].

Download the app and open it – it will guide you through the initial set-up.  Basically, it will ask you to identify your library and enter your library information and library barcode.  Once you do that, be sure and mark that you want your device to remember the information, unless you enjoy keying in the 14-digit barcode repeatedly.

At that point, your device is ready to browse and search for eBooks you might enjoy.  When you find a title (and the library has best sellers and a wide selection) you are interested in, just ask to Borrow that title – you can then have the eBook for 7 to 21 days (depending on the title – you can even choose the borrowing period for some titles!) and you start reading just by “flipping” screens on your device, just like turning pages on a physical book.  You can bookmark your place in the eBook (make sure you learn how to do this at the start) and then pop in to your reading choice during all the “spare corners” of your life.  Before you know it, you are reading like a house afire!

We can help you get started on reading eBooks here @ your FRL library – we have several people able to offer free device help as you need it.  Just ask!  Happy e-reading!

Rollicking Reads from 2016

It is the time of year for retrospectives.  And rather than recap celebrity deaths (Prince, Bowie, Mariah Carey’s career), I thought I’d pick a handful of materials I’ve checked out from the library that gave me hours of enjoyment this past year of 2016. They were not all published in 2016, but 2016 was the year I read them for the first time.

Overall, I’ve read 80 eBooks this past year, and about 20 additional books in print.  From those 100  I’ll select 10 things to recommend, all available from Fontana Regional Library or the NC Cardinal state system that FRL belongs to.

One explanation about my selections: I like science fiction and fantasy genres, but also like thriller and adventure novels, good comedies, and even some mysteries; when reading non-fiction I like histories, biographies, and memoirs.  So you will see “all of the above” in the ten titles/series I’ve chosen.  I’ll start with a memoir…about a movie, made about a book, that was written about a fictional book.

1.As you wish: inconceivable tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)

A memoir by the actor who played Westley in the now-classic movie The Princess Bride.  Hilarious and heart-warming, behind the scenes stories of how the movie came together, from the screenwriter (who also wrote the original book) to Billy Crystal to Andre the giant.

2.The Brilliance series by Marcus Sakey

3 titles: Brilliance (2013),  A Better World (2014), Written in Fire (2016)

An edge of tomorrow science-fiction thriller-adventure, about the social problems that occur when a percentage of the world’s children start manifesting savant-style gifts (like lightning calculation, but also mind-reading, pattern recognition, fantastic reflexes, etc.). It’s the story (somewhat similar to the story line of Blade Runner), about a special agent who hunts down the “Brilliants” who have broken the law.  And he and his youngest daughter are also Brilliants…

3.The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman

3 titles: The Invisible Library (2016), The Masked City (2016), The Burning Page (2017)

This fantasy series contains the tales of an alternate reality wherein many alternate realities can be traveled to, and the Invisible Library where the librarians attempt to collect all the versions of various books by travelling to the multi-verses involved.  Each alternate has a varying degree of Law vs. Chaos – Law based realities are like ours, with science and technology, whereas Chaos realities have fairies, dragons, magic, etc.  The realities are on a spectrum, so many of them have a mix. One of the first places the first book goes is a steampunk world with a Sherlock Holmes surrogate vs. vampires.

4.Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor

8 novels, plus novellas: https://www.goodreads.com/series/109102-the-chronicles-of-st-mary-s

In this fast-paced science-fiction series, St. Mary’s is an historical institute where historians study history via time travel.  A secret to all but their sponsoring Thirsk University, these tales tell of a the madcap adventures of the historian Madeline Maxwell, as she bounces with her colleagues from the fall of Troy to the Gates of Thermopylae to encounters with Isaac Newton and dodo birds.

5.Night School by Lee Child (2016)

Like all the Jack Reacher books written by Child, this one can be read as a standalone work, and not in any particular order.  Some of the Reacher books are “contemporary” and others are set back in Reacher’s past, while he was still in the Army.  This is a “past” title detailing how Reacher and a select team of both FBI and CIA agents undertake a secret mission to stop terrorists before they strike.  The appeal of the Reacher novels lies in the Jack Reacher character himself, as his unique brain and his indomitable physical gifts combine to thwart evil wherever he encounters it. In total, there are 21 books as of Night School.

6.Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo

2 titles: Six of Crows (2015), Crooked Kingdom (2016)

This fantasy duology is set in a steampunk world with some magic, and is sort of a fantasy version of Ocean’s Eleven. A group of six misfit but highly competent mercenary/criminals set out to infiltrate an un-breachable fortress and liberate the prisoner held there. There are lots of plot twists, with the leader Kaz usually (but not always) one step ahead of his opponents.

7.Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley

8 published novels and one novella : https://www.goodreads.com/series/46160-flavia-de-luce

A mystery series set shortly after WW2, whose heroine Flavia is only 11 (in the first book), but possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, a rather morbid interest in chemistry (specializing in poisons), and the youngest of a very interesting English noble family.  Most of the books are set in the environs of the decaying mansion and grounds of the de Luce estate, but one of the books sees Flavia off to Canada.  The series has ongoing themes, and is not really designed for standalone reading, but it can be done that way without undue difficulty.

8.The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson

3 novels and one novella: https://www.goodreads.com/series/93010-reckoners

An Earth where there are no super-heroes, only super-villains (the Epics), opposed by an extraordinary band of non-superpowered human rebels known as the Reckoners. Their goal – somehow defeating the Epics and restoring their world. Their only hope is to exploit the secret weakness of each super-villain.

9.Ex-heroes series by Peter Clines

5 titles: https://www.goodreads.com/series/67447-ex-heroes

{from the author’s website} In the days after civilization fell to the zombie hordes, a small team of heroes—including St. George, Zzzap, Cerberus, and Stealth—does everything they can to protect human survivors. Each day is a desperate battle against overwhelming odds as the heroes fight to keep the undead at bay, provide enough food and supplies for the living, and lay down their lives for those they’ve sworn to protect. But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the shadows of the ruin that lies everywhere…and they may be the most terrifying threat of all.

10.The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

[from the publishers webpage] “The art of love is never a science: Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.

Rosie Jarman possesses all these qualities. Don easily disqualifies her as a candidate for The Wife Project (even if she is “quite intelligent for a barmaid”). But Don is intrigued by Rosie’s own quest to identify her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on The Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie―and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.”

*****

As you can see, I discovered some wonderful series last year, as well as individual books, that kept me up too late, made me laugh out loud, and grabbed my imagination.  I hope you find something here that you will likewise enjoy!

[disclaimer: with series I am just linking to the first title in the series for you to get started, but I either list the existing books in the series or provide a link so they can be read in order]