Sunday, April 29, 2012

Body Surfing and Books

During the years I taught at a high school, I spent a great deal of time impressing on students the importance of reading.  Some took to that idea better than others.  While there are multiple reasons to read books, magazines, and newspapers, I am going to explore just one of those reasons in this post.

Books and stories teach us to see and consider the human condition in all of its many shapes.  While thoughtfully reading a great story or novel, we can turn the mirror of literature on our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Teaching high school English brought me in contact with a never-ending supply of stories and books.  As I look back on those years I remember a number of stories I discussed with high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. Several stand out, but one in particular stays with me--a story first published in The New Yorker by Anne Tyler in 1977.  It is called "Average Waves in Unprotected Waters," a strange title that is perfectly constructed.

Tyler's story concerns a single day in the tragic life of a mother who has a special needs child.  In this one day the reader discerns what has shaped the mother's life and caused her to make the decisions she has or hasn't made.  Those choices include marrying against her parents' wishes and then regretting it; seeing her husband leave after their special needs son is born;  staying with the child while paying the bills in a job that barely allows her to hire a sitter; and making a final decision about whether to institutionalize the grown child because, although she loves him, he has become too strong and difficult for her to handle. Huge events.

All of the choices the character made or had thrust upon her cause us to think about the way we weigh and evaluate issues in our own lives.

The title of Tyler's story comes from a brief scene the woman remembers from her childhood on the East Coast. Her father loved the sea and his entire life and career revolved around it.  He tried to teach his young daughter to body surf in the ocean,  but she simply stood still and let the waves slam into her.  Not adapting or meeting the waves head on seemed like the right thing to do.  In the present day the reader sees how much of the character's life has been dictated by this philosophy.  One bad decision leads to a number of ramifications, and rather than meet those changes head on she is stuck in a life in which the waves crash into her.  When the story ends it is apparent that she will continue to be a spectator in life and adapt poorly to change.

Adapting to change is a theme discussed by countless writers, and their takes on that theme are highly applicable to readers' lives.  Marriages end, children move away, jobs change or disappear, grandchildren are born, parents pass away, retirement comes along.        How do we adapt to changes such as these in our lives?  How do we learn from these experiences?

So what do we learn from books?  We thoughtfully consider the human condition in all of its shapes, and we turn the mirror of literature on our own lives.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reading Truly Is Fundamental

This week, April 22-28, is officially the Week of the Young Child.  Many organizations in our community are recognizing this week as a time to focus on the needs of young children whether they be at home or at school.

To celebrate this week, the Teddy Bear Child Development Center invited several people to read to the 3 to 5-year-olds and I felt honored to read today.  I chose a book that was a favorite of my granddaughter Gwen called Dinosaurumpus! by Tony Mitton.  It's a wonderful rhyming book but you have to be able to pronounce all those long dinosaur names. We had a great time making the roaring sound of the tyrannosaurus rex and the dancing sounds of the other dinosaurs doing the dinosaur romp.  I also took along a rubber dino for each of the children to take home.  It is so important to make reading fun at this age.

I know the phrase "reading is fundamental" is part of the American culture and certainly never goes out of style. Many factors contribute to the vocabulary of young children and reading is one of the biggest.  However, socio-economic factors often conspire to make the playing field unequal.  15 million children (or 21% of all U.S. children) live in families below the poverty line.  Besides contributing to poor health, poverty also decreases the chance that children will have stimulating reading in the home [The National Center for Children Living in Poverty.]

Economic advantage does make a difference when it comes to children learning vocabulary, a widely documented skill that leads to school success.  Speaking and reading both contribute to the amount of vocabulary children learn before formal schooling.  But children who live in the poverty zone hear approximately 616 words per hour, those living in a working class family hear 1,251 words per hour, and those who live in professional families hear 2,153 words [University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning.]  So the playing field is not level.

Reading to preschoolers is one way of helping that divide narrow.  Reading not only increases vocabulary, but it also helps with basic speech and communication skills, mastery of language, logical thinking, and social skills.  Furthermore, it teaches the basics of how to read a book.  Front to back and left side to right side of the page are skills that children have to be taught in order to learn how to read.  Those children going to school with a sound knowledge of how a book "works" are ahead of those who do not.

And even once in school children need to continue to read at home.  Many families have both parents working or a single working parent in the home.  It is tough to get everything done.But reading to your child--both preschooler and school age--is fundamental to their success in school.

Did your parents read to you?  Do you read to your own children and grandchildren?  What is your/their favorite book?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Librarians Solve Mysteries Every Day

Librarians definitely solve mysteries!  I spent the day working as a volunteer at the Warren County Public Library in Monmouth, Illinois.  Monmouth is a town of 10,000 in west central Illinois about twenty miles from the Mississippi River. 

Kathy is the saintly woman designated to keep an eye on me.  What a patient person! In this photo were are standing in front of books by authors who are members of Sisters in Crime. We solved a lot of mysteries such as figuring out what is in all the nooks and crannies of the huge old building.  Some of the doors in the upstairs are heavy metal and slide open and closed as if we were in a meat packing plant. Very, very old.

Here I am checking out a book for a patron.  The library is a hub of activity in this little town.  Working here would help you see a huge cross section of the town.

A librarian's job is a lot like teaching.  First, you rarely sit down or get a chance to go to the bathroom.  Second, you are always answering peoples' questions or trying to find things to help them.  I learned how to check books in and out, how to shelve, download digital books, figure out how to check out a book with a hand-written barcode, and how to make the *&(!!# wand work to check out books.

Kathy told me of an amazing mystery.  They had some books that were overdue and tried to reach the patron by sending a letter.  The letter came back from the post office marked "deceased."  So, instead of just writing it off, the librarians began asking selected patrons if they had seen this person  [Remember, this is a small town!] One of the question-ees had not seen the person, but a few weeks later she approached the desk and explained that the person they had been seeking was sitting at a computer a few yards away.  So the librarian was able to confirm the person's name and give him that bad news that he owed money for books.  The good news was that he wasn't dead.

This is one of the "nooks and crannies" where "old technology" goes to die.  Remember the old card catalog?

I also learned of a guilt letter.  Someone who had stolen books years ago and not returned them had an attack of guilt and wrote the library a letter.  He wanted to apologize for taking the books and offered to make restitution after quite a few years had gone by.  I wonder what the statute of limitations is on stolen books?

All in all it was a great day and I felt like I had done my share to say "thank you" to our library for all they do in supporting local authors and educating people and providing amazing services.  

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sisters in Crime Loves Libraries!

Libraries have always been a huge part of my life, so I am especially thrilled to be working on Saturday at the Warren County Public Library on behalf of Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes women writing crime fiction and mysteries.  It's a way to say "thank you" for the wonderful help libraries and book stores give to writers.

Growing up in Galesburg, Illinois [population 35,000], I spent many Saturday mornings in its library's children's room.  The Galesburg Public Library was built in the 1870s, a product partly of the generosity of Andrew Carnegie.  A huge, dark stone structure, it was built in the Romanesque style.  Even though I was a child at the time, I remember the unique glass floor on the second story and the doll's house in the children's department.  Many a Saturday I sat and peered into the windows of the doll's house, wondering who could have created such tiny people and furniture. It was a never-ending source of imagination for small children.

When I was twelve, that beautiful library burned to the ground on May 9, 1958.  I remember that night because my father managed the drive-in theatre, almost three miles outside of town.  I was at the theatre that night and we could see the flames roaring high into the darkness.  It was a terrible loss, even for the mind of a child.  For a brief time the city had a temporary library housing what books hadn't been destroyed by fire or damaged by water.  Then, in 1961, a new, more modern building rose on the same site as the old library.  It wasn't the same, but it still became a place where I researched debate topics in high school and checked out books. 

At the same time I was aware of the library at Knox College, also in my hometown.  A friend of my father's was a librarian there.  In fact, I was allowed to use the rare book room as an 8th grader, poring over the papers about Lewis and Clark.  The library fed my love of history and that love became the major of my undergrad studies at Knox.  I worked at the library as part of my work/study job and loved every minute.  I can still smell the books,  see the row after row of non-digital newspapers and magazines, and remember the historical artifacts and papers.

So that brings me to a magnificent library, one I have used since 1968, when I moved to the small town of Monmouth, Illinois [population 10,000], and discovered the Warren County Public Library <>.  It began as a reading room and library in 1868, shortly after the Civil War, housing only newspapers and magazines.  In 1870, a donor offered funds to build a two-story building, the first building in the state of Illinois given for a people's library.

The library grew and branched out, literally!  By 1904, WCPL had five branch libraries and in 1920 it became a library supported by state funds under a new law.  In 1921 the branches had grown to twelve.  The library expanded in 1962, 1992, and 1996.  A genealogy area was added and a children's area expanded.  Since then a teenage area has been added.

I came into this picture in 1968.  By then the WCPL had begun issuing library cards.  My number is in the low two-hundreds, a badge of honor, because today the library has 14,035 current patrons with library cards.  I have used this library for 44 years and have yet to stump them when it comes to acquiring or having on hand a particular item I want.  Recently, I used both the library and genealogy room to research information for my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).  In fact, the library sold hundreds of copies of my book locally and sponsored a reading and book signing when my book first came out.  

Currently, I am researching a mystery which has historical ties to events that happened in Monmouth.  The library has been an incalculable source of information.  

In short, the Warren County Public Library is a gem that would be impossible to replace!

[Photos from the websites of the Galesburg Public Library and the Warren County Public Library]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Home: A Long Day's Journey into Nighttime

You may have wondered why I haven't been blogging for a few days.  This is it.  My office is piled full of boxes, papers, and books that I packed in Arizona and brought to Illinois.  I think it may take me a few days.  Or weeks.  I did finally find the cord to my printer this morning after a desperate, 24-hour search.  It was packed in a box between my toothpaste and chocolate chip cookies.  Logical, right?

When my younger son told me we'd have to switch the weekend of our trip from Arizona to Illinois, I knew no good could come of it.  After all, it was the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, and while we were not travelling by water, we were driving about 1800+ miles in two days.  This trip never goes the way I anticipate it will go.

My son had a prior commitment the following weekend when I had originally planned to make the trek.  And, better yet, this would put him in a prime position to say, "Of course Mom likes me best."  He would finish his stint driving with his aging parent so she could spend the other nine months back in her hometown.  However, his two siblings are now on the chopping block for the next trip.

We carefully set our plans to drive through the mountains of northern Arizona, through Show Low, and pick up the interstate going across New Mexico.  Alas, snow and sleet that weekend in the mountains meant we would have to go south through Tucson.  Really? It also dictated driving across that nation that is so huge it masquerades as a state--Texas.

We set out through Tucson and headed into the southwest corner of New Mexico.  Las Cruces gave way to El Paso, the city across from the Mexican town of Juarez.  Our rule:  No stopping, not for gunfire or bathrooms. However, we were stopped outside of El Paso by the border patrol, checking with drug dogs.  They asked if we were US citizens and then let us through.  I guess a 65-year-old with fading hair color is a "go."

We continued through southwest Texas, wind blowing, dust flying, and hardly a town in sight,  When we reached Odessa we had a moment of silence for the town of Friday Night Lights fame.  Then we

journeyed on through Midland, Big Spring, Sweetwater, and Abilene.  Our original plan was to go north through Amarillo, drive into Oklahoma, and spend the night in Oklahoma City.  By now, however, there were tornado warnings in Oklahoma and Kansas.  Really?  We stopped, after 891 miles, at Abilene.

The next morning we dragged our weary bodies out of bed and drove north through Wichita Falls and into Oklahoma.  I have to say there is very little in west Texas other than oil wells, scrap metal dumps, tumbleweeds, and, of course, high school football fields.  The minute we crossed the state border into Oklahoma all was green, softly blowing grass and trees.  It was almost as if Oklahoma had paid its water bill.

Wichita gave way to Emporia and then Kansas City.  Should we go across Missouri or head north?  Our trusty phones prophesied storms coming north through Missouri.  We opted to go through the northwest corner to Iowa and take route 34 from Osceola through Burlington and on into Illinois.

Here we were, driving down a two-lane Iowa road in the darkness while insects the size of bricks were hitting our windshield hard enough to make us jump.  My son asked, "Geez, what was that?"  I guess he didn't remember that part of the Midwest.

We drove 960 miles that day and as soon as we crossed into Iowa my sinuses and lungs knew they were home.  It may take me a week, however, to get my legs working again.  We parked my trusty Toyota in the garage after all of those 1800 miles, and I vowed to make an appointment to give her an oil change and tire rotation so she would be rewarded for her valiant effort.

To paraphrase one of my granddaughters, "Home, I've missed you so!"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Finally, It May Pay to Be an EBook Reader!

            Just as I’m poised to make a second leap into the publishing world, I am reading constantly about how that world is changing.  Traditional publishers, e-book publishing, vanity publishers, and self-publishing are all terms being explored at writing conferences nationwide.  Today it is highly possible for anyone to write a book and publish it, especially as an electronic book, which can be read on a number of wireless devices.  So what am I to make of the story carried on the national news about a number of publishers and Apple who are accused of allegedly conspiring to fix prices on ebooks?

            It is true that when I first bought my Kindle I was promised that I could buy all kinds of books for as low as $4.99- $9.99.  So imagine my surprise, a few months later, to discover that prices on many of the new books were as high as $14.99.  How did that happen and especially happen so quickly?  Other people wearing suits and carrying briefcases to courtrooms were apparently wondering that also.

            Two separate lawsuits alleging conspiracy have recently been filed.  One suit, a class action suit joined by 16 state attorneys general, was filed earlier against Macmillan, Penguin Group, Simon and Schuster, Inc., HarperCollins Publishers, Hachette Book Group, and Apple. 

            A second suit was just filed April 11 in Manhattan by the Department of Justice (DOJ) alleging that Hachette, Pearson, MacMillan, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Apple colluded to fix the price of ebooks just before Apple’s iPad came out in 2010. 

            Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster have reached a settlement with the DOJ which says they must allow retailers like Barnes and Noble or Amazon to reduce prices of ebooks they sell from these publishers.  The publishers also agreed to pay some $51 million to ebook consumers as restitution.  However, they will not be required to admit any federal law violation.  Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin are still fighting the DOJ suit and plan to vigorously defend their policies. 

            Price and the profit margin appear to be the bottom line.  According to John P. Mello, Jr., at PC World, publishers used a business model where retailers were called “agents;” this meant the publishers set the prices.  They saw Amazon discounting books from other companies as a challenge to publishing prices and to the margin of profit they could make if readers expected these lower prices.

            Now that the DOJ suit has been filed, the class action suit may become stronger and force a civil settlement (as mentioned in  In the long run, if either or both suits are found to have merit, they may result in lower ebook prices and some restitution to ebook buyers since 2009.

            I wouldn’t mind having an extra dollar or two to help fill my gas tank! Now where did I put those receipts?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An American Classic Turns Fifty...Twice

When it came out in 1960 I was fourteen.  In those days before the Civil Rights Movement it was an explosive novel.  A couple of years later I read it in high school and I fell in love with Atticus Finch, Scout, and Jem.

I railed at the injustice of Tom Robinson’s death and admired the deeply felt and simply rendered lessons of a small town, white attorney who was quite realistic about living in an imperfect world.  Two years ago, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, was re-released at its fifty-year mark.  I re-read it then and was reminded of all that is violent, dark, explosive, and ugly in the history of race relations in America.  But I also marveled at the many scenes of decency and social justice.  A particularly iconic scene that stays with the reader is the night the lynch mob planned to storm the jail and kill Tom Robinson. But Jean Louise shamed them with her innocence.  Through the eyes of children what is right or wrong is so simple and unchanging.

On Saturday night The NBC Nightly News program mentioned that the film of To Kill a Mockingbird is now fifty years old, coming out originally in 1962.  So I watched it for the fifth or sixth time.  Rarely does a film live up to a book but this is an exception.

President Obama recorded a preface to the film and stated that it reminded us of the values we share and the timelessness of human decency.

In our never-ending struggle to treat all people based on their character rather than their skin color, the lessons of  To Kill a Mockingbird still hold true.  I must admit that when Atticus Finch left that courtroom and the entire balcony stood up, I was once again moved to tears.  As the minister said to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise. Stand up.  Your father’s passing.”

Of course neither the book nor the film has a happy ending.  That seldom happens in realistic books or films about this subject and period in American History.   But even so, To Kill a Mockingbird—whether novel or film—reminds us that a society’s decency and moral character is judged by how it treats its poorest, its outcasts, its mockingbirds. 

It is fifty years later and we still don’t seem to get the message that we’re all in this together.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Sense of Place

I must admit I am a huge fan of the television series Friday Night Lights whose 63 episodes aired from 2006-2011.  It told the story of a high school football team—the Panthers—in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.  Running for six seasons, FNL centered around a high school coach, Eric Taylor, his wife, Tami, and a group of football players whose various talents, decisions, and circumstances led them to a wider life beyond Dillon or a narrower life staying in the small town.  When it ended with the wonderful soundtrack by Delta Spirit called “Devil Knows You’re Dead,” I felt like I had lost a group of friends.  Why?  I am not drawn to football games or high school immaturity these days. 

After much thought, I believe the town, its culture and expectations, and the human relationships in FNL reminded me of “a sense of place.”  I understood and felt comfortable in that small town and with its characters—some with a huge sense of decency and selflessness, and others guided by narcissism and selfishness. It felt like a familiar place. 

A good book is like that too.  I reach the last page and hate to leave that place and time.

For Robert Frost a sense of place was New England with its birches, snow, pastures, and streams.  For William Faulkner, as well as Eudora Welty, it was the South with its brooding knowledge of the past.  John Steinbeck’s sense of place was the California arroyos and the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression.  For Nathanial Hawthorne the Salem area with its witches and dark forests provided a setting and sense of the familiar.

Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t lost—in this amazingly interconnected and digital world—a sense of place.  Some might call it a sense of “home.” 

I was reminded of that this morning as I read the local newspapers back in Illinois.  Often their stories remind me of how wonderful it is to be surrounded by the familiar.  A farmer is killed in a terrible accident and his neighbors organize to help bring in the crops.  Recognized names and places, local politics, even obituaries of familiar family names form an unconscious framework for my thoughts.  My reactions to stories are the product of forty-four years in the same area among familiar people, names, and events.

My own children grew up in a small Illinois town.  They have memories of their neighborhood with “back door neighbors,” pick up baseball games in the yard, walking to and from school, and weekend evenings at the roller rink.  When one of them drove his hot wheels off the neighbor’s porch thinking he was one of the Dukes of Hazzard, all the doors opened and everyone rushed to see what the noise was after he hit the sidewalk.  When another one rode her tricycle down the middle of the main street to go shopping downtown at age four, a local cab driver brought her back unharmed—fortunately it was to the next door neighbor’s house since I would have died of embarrassment at her escape.  Small towns. 

Recently I had a terrible accident in the small town I call home.  What was amazing was that I knew the firemen that came to my rescue, many of the nurses and doctors that cared for me in two different hospitals, and the friends who came to my home afterwards.  People provided food, rides to doctors' appointments, and simple company while I was healing. 

In my winter home I share the freeways with thousands of cars, stand in lines with total strangers, and live in a neighborhood with people I never see. 

A sense of place.  There is something to be said for that.