Two good books you’ve not heard of

Discovering great new books is always fun – but when they’re written by friends or family it’s joyously so. Friend and former neighbor Donna Levin has a new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home which I’ve ordered but not yet read; it involves a mother and her autism spectrum son, a theme explored by WordPress blogger friend Antoinette Banks of Tailor Made Life.

Literary talent in the family, though, what special fun. Here’s a story of two very different, very interesting books you’ve probably not heard of – but may want to check out.

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Iceland: bucolic, and enticing

Adam Nichols, who is married to my niece and thus I claim him as nephew, is co-author of a fascinating new book, The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627. It’s a tale familiar to Icelanders for centuries, and now making its way into other countries. It’s also a tale that can make you think perhaps the perils of the 21st century aren’t so bad after all.

The Corsairs, when in need of either ransom money or cheap labor or both, simply took off from Africa in pirate ships, swooped down on a likely community and carried off the citizens to sell in the Barbary Coast slave trade. In between times they intercepted ships on the high seas and made off with whatever they found. Human rights were a long way off.

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Barbary Corsairs in action

In 1627, such a raid took place in the Icelandic village where Rev. Olafur was a Lutheran minister. A few villagers escaped, some were killed, and the rest – including Rev. Olafur and his wife and children – were taken off to be sold as slaves. At some point the good reverend was released and sent on his way to raise ransom money from the King of Denmark. No spoiler alert: the tale won’t be followed any farther here. To history’s benefit, Rev. Olafur kept a diary, carefully noting details of his journeys and somewhat dispassionately relating what happened to his friends and family. It is that diary that translates into The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson.

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Cover photo

 Adam Nichols, a longtime English teacher and author of nine books of fantasy fiction, lived in Iceland for several years. He worked with co-author Karl Smari Hreinsson to create this edition, published by Catholic University of America Press, which is exhaustively annotated to help 21st  century readers follow this 17th century tale. Adam, who is also #1 errand-runner/ taxi driver/ general assistant to my 89-year-old sister, is working on a new book about the Barbary Corsairs, a biography of one of the leaders of the 1627 raid.

Jumping several centuries forward from the Barbary Corsairs, a tale of the 20th century “Greatest Generation” is told by my niece Leslie Sinyard, in her new book Don’t Look. . . Just Jump: The Life of Olive Hammons Weathersby. Far more than an oral history, Don’t Look. . . Just Jump brings to life not just the subject – who died shortly after her 93rd birthday in April, 2013 – but a generation and a kinder, gentler time. Olive’s sweetheart, who would become a widely recognized entomologist/professor and her husband for nearly five adventurous decades, sent letters from the battlefields of World War II wishing they could go out for a Coke date. If either of the couple felt really strongly about something, a ‘Darn!’ might enter the conversation.

Don't Look Just Jump

But the Olive Weathersby story is no timid tale. The title refers to the time when she was the first civilian to parachute from a crashing airplane, and the adventures the couple shared were anything but bland. His work took them to Egypt, where they lived on an island in the Nile; to Tehran, where she first experienced living in a Muslim community; and to Japan, where her kitchen window featured a view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Eventually they settled in Athens, Georgia to raise their two adopted sons in the turbulent times of the late 20th century.

Leslie Sinyard, who shared a deep Christian faith with the woman her children called their “Athens grandmother,” spent six years interviewing “Miss Olive” and tracking the story. For someone whose career was in business and finance, she turns out to be a remarkable literary storyteller – with a remarkable story to tell.

Breast Cancer? Ask questions!

In honor of International Women’s Day (even if I didn’t quite get it finished in time,) this brief message is about a book recently re-issued by Dr. William H. Goodson III that should be in the hands of every woman with breast cancer, wanting to understand breast cancer or helping someone who is going through breast cancer.

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It’s Your Body . . . ASK is a guidebook for talking with your doctor about breast cancer. I would’ve given anything to have had it when I had breast cancer, and a mastectomy, a dozen years ago. Maybe I would’ve made different decisions, maybe not. But the reality is this: most women, unless they have had medical training, would never think to ask a question like “What are the side effects of removing axillary nodes?” Personally, I didn’t think to ask about nodes at all. Other than considering the size of my cancer, in fact, questions I might have asked about its rate of growth, alternative treatments, follow-up therapies – – were mostly not discussed because I didn’t know to ask them.

This is a book that gives not just answers (it offers many answers about families, about hormone-based therapies and other issues) but more importantly: questions. If you, a breast cancer patient, know the questions, your doctor needs to give you the answers. What’s that lump about? What about these other pains and symptoms I have? What are all of my treatment options?

(I would say, here, Full disclosure: Dr, Goodson is a friend of mine. But it would be more braggadocio than disclosure. Bill Goodson and I shared a few discussion program podiums It's Your Bodyseveral years ago when his gripping novel about sexual violence against women, The Blue-Eyed Girl and my Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade were both newly released. I’m a writer. He’s a Senior Scientist at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute; a recognized leader in breast cancer care who has been (among other things) a Professor of Surgery at the University of California San Francisco and President of the San Francisco Medical Society, and is listed in The Best Doctors in America.)

Credentials aside, It’s Your Body . . . ASK is worth a look. It offers a pathway through turbulent times, which can be far less turbulent if you have some help in steering your own ship.

Check it out.

Trump’s first 100 days of chaos

“We only seek to find the truth and set it free,” reads the slogan of the nonpartisan public affairs forum, San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club. Before the Club moved to temporary headquarters, en route to its brand new offices which are set to open sometime this year, I always loved riding the elevator to the meeting rooms – and reading that message in large script on the entry wall.

Today, finding the truth is a tall order.

Warning: This is a political column. Despite my avowed intention to stay out of politics until there is at least a ray of hope somewhere, politics just won’t go away.

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Recently the Commonwealth Club hosted a program titled “Trump’s First 100 Days: Part One.” Panelists included two women: Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations (a US-born citizen); and retired CA Supreme Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, Chair, Santa Clara Jail Commission (and the great-granddaughter of slaves, she mentioned at one point.) They were two impressive citizens. This writer would have been happy to spend an hour listening to their understandings and perspectives.

Also on the panel were two white male gentlemen who dominated (unless the Moderator intervened) the conversation: Steven Fish, Professor of Political Science, University of California Berkeley, and Sean Walsh, GOP Political Strategist.

Riding herd on this well-informed, and certainly passionate about their positions, quartet was Scott Shafer, Senior Editor, California Politics & Government, KQED – which is partnering with the Commonwealth Club on these programs.

If I were covering this extremely interesting event for a non-fake news outlet, it could be effectively done in about 10,000 words. Instead, I offer here the excerpted (wildly condensed)  responses each panelist had to Shafer’s opening question: In this bizarre beginning – it was 38 days in when this program aired – to the Trump presidency, “what jumps out at you?”

Steven Fish: “It is not clear that the president of the United States is completely loyal to his own country, or the ideals of democracy.”

Judge Cordell: “We should be talking about the first 100 lies.” (She expounded on that at some length, and with clear, concise accuracy, ticking off the lie and the truth.)

Samara Billoo: “There is a sense of fear in my community,” spurred by “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic” messages coming from the White House and its Republican allies.

Sean Walsh: “He does not have his advisers, transition people, in place. He (our president) is in the process of putting his administration in place.”

Shafer: “Chaos.”

It’s going to be a long 100 days, and then some.

Breathe Deeply, Make New Resolutions

If you are a regular follower of this space – which would put you in a small but extremely erudite and observant group – you will have noticed an extended silence. An absence of Opinion. A voicelessness, one might say.

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It happens. For writers of a certain sort, it has come to this.

Waking up at 3 AM worrying about the erosion of our fragile democracy, the destruction of our fragile planet, the disappearance of civility, decency, respect and understandable syntax from our fragile public discourse – that’ll do it: render the brain unable to create. Plus, I don’t like writing about meanness, misogyny and narcissism, and what else is there in the un-fake news? Alternative facts?

Recently I decided to emerge from this bleak doldrum. OK, it happened accidentally, at my daughter’s beautiful winter wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we sent wish lanterns into the night sky, and who can resist coming back to life amidst snowy mountains, wishes and true love?

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I’m not going into the specifics of the brightly lit wish turned resolution. But here are a few thoughts on Springtime resolutions – for what they’re worth, and/or for anyone who wants to consider making Springtime resolutions of their own.

Resolution #1: Calm down and do less. This space will now be the only space for this writer’s random thoughts. Goodbye, Huffington Post. This will please writer friends who were furious about my writing for Huffington Post (contributors’ pay? Zero) in the first place – but hey, I was trying to sell books when I started. My page remains up, but I noticed the last post (12/20/16) was titled “Talking Your Way Into a Better Death” – which seems a fitting final exit message.

Resolution #2: Revisit long-abandoned good ideas. Like that short story collection I keep saying I’ll publish if I live long enough. Or maybe some other brilliant projects. Several days ago a friend asked if she could buy a copy of my excellent Cooking for the Dentally Impaired book. Well, no. I never sold it. But after an exhaustive search I did find the hard copy. Maybe I’ll find some geek person who can help me find the computer files from whenever that was – 15+ years ago. I still think it’s a great idea, even if no publisher agreed and my agent thought I’d gone bonkers. Self-publishing has gotten downright respectable.

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Resolution #3: Breathe deeply, stay vigilant. At the Women’s March, author Melissa Febos reportedly talked about the purpose of a vigil: “To keep awake during a time when usually asleep.” Until recently, this writer had drawn the line at marches, protests and vigils. Letters, emails, talks, phone calls etc okay – but showing up in person? Nahh. In the past year, however, I joined a vigil for black kids shot and killed just a few miles from my safely comfortable neighborhood and it was both a blessing and an eye-opener. Then I broke down and marched with the Women’s March in San Francisco and that’s the most fun I’ve had in years. So now? I plan to stay vigilant with StandUpSF among other groups, because I believe democracy, decency, inclusion, respect – all those things – are worth preserving.

This space has also always been about optimism. Resolution #4 is to keep that optimism. There will always be goodness, good intentions, good people – including good people with whom we disagree and whom we should listen to and respect. For the sake of my grandchildren, I will continue to search out them all.

Signs of Our Marching Times

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The March was intended to be about women’s rights – workplace rights, immigrant and minority rights, the right to make our own reproductive decisions, all those rights that suddenly seem threatened. It turned out to be a celebration of the spirit.

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It was hard to separate rights & purposes from our new president, and hard to ignore the mean-spiritedness that most marchers hope at least to diminish. But it turned out to be a celebration of everything he disdains.

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This writer has traditionally drawn the line at protest marching. In the past I’ve done talks, workshops, phone calls, emails, office visits and the occasional vigil; this year felt like it called for showing up. So along with several friends from the geezer house where I live, I struck out into the rainy San Francisco late afternoon along with a few hundred thousand others. Estimates vary, but we spilled into so many adjoining streets that 50,000 seems a minimal number.

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The signs say it all. Or a lot of it.

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If anyone’s spirits were dampened by the cold rain, you couldn’t tell. What you can tell, from the smiling faces among the umbrellas, is how it felt. Most of all, it was just heartening to be among all of the above, and among the many scattered signs saying “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

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Yossi Gurvitz on Flicker

A similar sign was photographed by Yossi Gurvitz in St. Paul’s Square during the Occupy London movement several years ago, a darker view of that phrase. But with enough joyful, celebratory gatherings such as those all around America on January 21, perhaps democracy will survive its current challenges — and look like government by the (sometimes jubilant) people.

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Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Immigrants, Refugees, Human Beings

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“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”

His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.

Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.

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Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.

Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)

Among the organizations working to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants on our own soil is the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Senior Program Director Rev. Deborah Lee was speaking of her group’s work at the interfaith event where Antonio told his own story.

“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”

The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”

Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.

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The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.