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.

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.

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.

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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Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

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Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

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Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

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by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

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Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

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A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Evolution & the Curious Child

 

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It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

Anna Quindlen on form & feminism

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen, on tour with her new novel Miller’s Valley, sat down for a rollicking interview with author Kelly Corrigan recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Within an hour they had traded profound thoughts and raucous asides – some printable and some not – on topics ranging from literary form to family histories to feminism, from death & dying to the prosecution of rapists.

A few random excerpts:

Re Miller’s Valley – which reviewers have described as “a quintessential small town story about a family you will never forget” – Quindlen said she felt early on that she wanted it to be written in the first person (Mimi, who grows from an 11-year-old into her sixties in the book, is the narrator) because she wanted to leave “some ambiguity at the end, and that’s only possible with a first person narrator. There is a kind of intimacy you can only develop through the first person.”

On how much of Miller’s Valley – and her seven earlier novels – is taken from her own life: “When I was a newspaper reporter people thought I made things up. Now I make things up and people think they’re real.”

On families, literary and otherwise: Corrigan, noting Quindlen’s untroubled childhood and long-lasting, happy marriage, asked if “people who have not lived through deep dysfunction” can still produce great writing. “I had a happy childhood,”Quindlen responded, “but I remember always feeling that there was no place for me in the world.” Then she listed three things that have made her the (highly acclaimed) writer she is: her mother’s illness and death – Quindlen, the eldest of five siblings, left college in her sophomore year to care for her cancer-stricken mother – the “good luck to be a street reporter in New York City,” and being a mom to her three now-grown children.

Corrigan followed with a family tale of her own. After calling her mother to tell her about an award just received, Corrigan was dismayed by her mother’s being “not very impressed.” So after a few moments of disappointment she called back to find out why. Her mother said, “I’m glad you called back. I’m jealous.” To which Quindlen added, “We all said, ‘I don’t want the kind of life my mother had.’”

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On memoir (both authors have produced well-received memoirs) v fiction: “In memoirs there is stuff you can’t talk about,” Corrigan commented, “like jealousies, or sex with your husband. But in fiction we can be more honest about what hangs us up.”

“How’s feminism going?” Corrigan asked toward the end of the conversation. “We (feminists) are, like God, everywhere,” Quindlen replied. Concerning one major issue of the feminist movement, Corrigan mentioned data that “reported rapes are up.” Possibly, she added, because for so long rapes went unreported.” But Quindlen noted ruefully that “fairly recently, in New York, you couldn’t prosecute without a third party witness. “Someone had to walk in during the event, preferably a nun or a policeman.”

Asked to name her favorite rising feminist, Quiundlen paused only briefly before saying “Lena Dunham. She immediately used her fame to help others. Every book event she does is tied to the local Planned Parenthood.” Citing the oft-repeated feminist mantra Learn, Earn, Return, Quindlen said Dunham “is doing all three at the same time.” And Quindlen couldn’t resist getting in a plug for another woman she admires, “Hillary Rodham, as I like to call her, not using her slave name – is best qualified, and will make a great President.”