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.


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.

Barbary Corsairs

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.

Travels of Rev Olafur cover

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.

You CAN go home again…

… but it won’t be quite the same.

I’m just home from a trip to Washington, DC

for a nice event at The Corcoran Gallery that included a wide-ranging assortment of events — business, pleasure and in between. There were old faces, new faces and vastly altered landscapes, familiar turf and unfamiliar weather.

There were serendipitous treats like catching up with old friends I’ve not seen in a few years or a few decades… in the case of old friend  Roger Mudd, it was a matter of catching up on some 60 years.

Photo credit W&

Photo credit W&

And a side trip to my childhood hometown of Ashland, VA, where the characters of many of my short stories roam.

Thomas Wolfe, whose book title inspired this blog post, put it this way: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” I wasn’t inspired to lean down my ear on the frosty February earth of Ashland (although the phrase brings fond memories of leaning our childhood ears upon the train tracks to figure out whether a locomotive was en route,) but it was fascinating to find things changed, and unchanged:

The dining room where I ate dinners for some 20+ years features a different wallpaper and is decorated with different art, but it’s still a warm and welcoming room and I was incredibly blessed to be invited to a “Homecoming Dinner” therein with family, old friends and the now residents of the home. 2014-01-31_18-53-31_136

Randolph-Macon College is unchanged in some of its gracious, over 100-year-old buildings and long familiar original campus on which I grew up, but surely changed in the rapidly expanding new campus… and the student body which was all male in my long ago childhood. It was a very special treat to meet with some of the current students and faculty, in class and at lunch. That story follows in a few days here; I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Sisters and Heroes

When Red Room, my good Authors site (surf on over) invited everyone to blog about heroes this week I couldn’t resist posting the eulogy I wrote for my sister Mimi a few months ago. And can’t resist morphing it over here too, so herewith:

Mimi was my hero. Beginning with the day she stood down the Alpha kid in our Ashland VA gang. We were about 6 and 8 at the time. Beverly Ann Brooks kept the gang under control by placing her hands on her hips when she didn’t get her way, and declaring, “Well, I QUIT.” I was totally in awe of Beverly Ann. But one day when everyone wanted to do one thing and Beverly Ann wanted to do another and pulled that on us, my sister Mimi drew herself up to her full several feet, put her own hands on her hips and said, “Well, quit then, Beverly Ann.” I still draw on that moment for strength in times of distress.

So we grew up, with Mimi rather graciously sharing the power she acquired that day. And then we went off to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where Mimi regularly bailed me out when I overspent my budget – this was a time when bailouts involved several trillion dollars less than today, but they were still critical in my life. At her senior piano recital I was a nervous wreck, she was cool as a cucumber, the recital was flawless, and I remember being so proud I could hardly contain myself.

After I graduated, Mimi and my college roommate Pat and I got an apartment in downtown Richmond where we set the town on fire. Literally. One of us, who will remain nameless, left the sun lamp on late one night and we woke up to an inferno. Pat and I immediately took off – we did get the other apartment dwellers up and out, but to be truthful we were interested in our own hides. Mimi calmly sat down by the phone and called the fire department, while she took the curlers out of her hair.The neighborhood gathered in the middle of the street, watching the firemen toss our furniture over the balcony.It was 28 degrees.Pat and I nearly froze until somebody got us coats; Mimi was fully clothed with her hair combed.Those of you who knew our mother will appreciate that when she learned of her children’s brush with death her first response was, “Oh, dahling. Any lady would have stopped to put on a bathrobe.” I don’t think Mimi was interested in being a lady, she just thought ahead.

Eventually I went south to Atlanta and Mimi went northwest to Michigan. She immediately learned that southern drawl equated to dumb girl, so she sped up her vocabulary to a point at which I could barely understand her.So I talked her into moving to Atlanta, where she began a long and very distinguished teaching career.

Mimi was pursued by the sharpest and best-looking men across four states and the District of Columbia. But when she met Tom I think she recognized the person with whom she could spend nearly 50 years and never be bored. Leslie was the light of her mother’s life from the day she was born. There is, though, one issue that should probably be brought into the open here. When our kids were in high school, Leslie – along with hundreds of other teenagers – was caught up in a movement led by a Christian youth minister who will also remain nameless, since he may still be out leading movements and helping kids grow up like Leslie and we should all be grateful. But he was some distance to the theological right of many of us, and it drove Mimi nuts. Finally one day I said, “You know, Meem, given all the things we have to worry about with our children these days, I’d pick ‘too religious’ every time.” So maybe I was her hero at that point.

Mimi’s health became fragile over the past decade, and she didn’t do fragile very well. She did piano, alto, organ, accordion, Spanish, tennis, bridge, dinner parties – or declaiming on her incomparable grandchildren – she did all that fine. I am proud of her refusal to do fragile any more. I do know that heroes are masculine and I should’ve said heroine. But in the good old gender neutral a Hero is omniscient.I’m of that old school, and I’m also from woo-woo California and so I believe Mimi is now here, and omniscient, and she is still my hero.