Tag Archives: memoir
“Talking Mysteries – A Conversation with Tony Hillerman” by Tony Hillerman and Ernie Bulow
Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008) is one of my favorite authors. His books prove that novels and mysteries need not be placed in two separate categories. I can’t define “literature”, but I know it when I read it.
Talking Mysteries was published in 1991, when Hillerman was about halfway through his eighteen book Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mystery series. He had already received the award he valued most, the Special Friends of the Dineh from the Navajo Nation Council.
Talking Mysteries is the kind of book publishers throw together when they realize they have a winner in their midst. A few interviews, a short story. Some commentary…
Who was Ernie Bulow? A man of many trades (including trader), he wrote (including a book called Navajo Taboos and two other books of “conversations”) , taught and practiced the arts of photography and silver smithing.
The icing on this cake is a set of sketches from Navajo artist Ernest Franklin, who illustrated some of Hillerman’s novels. On line, I found the even more exciting paintings by Franklin. My thanks to Parrish Books for the thumbnail image reproduced above.
Hillerman was a prolific writer, and we are fortunate he wrote an autobiography called Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir seven years before his death. I recommend it highly.
“Lovely is the Lee” by Robert Gibbings, 1946
I found this book on a junk pile, about to go to the dump. Pure luck! Maybe the luck of the Irish, to which I am genetically entitled. The book could be categorized as “travel” or “memoir”.
The Irish river Lee crosses (roughly) from the town of Ballingeary to the city of Cork, the author’s birthplace. The book is an account of Gibbings return home after developing his career as a writer, sculptor and illustrator using wood engravings. It’s a travel book, mixing geography, natural history, folklore and personal anecdotes. Good reading!
The book is illustrated by the author’s wood engravings. From my perspective as a cellphone-camera photographer, I’m impressed by the effort that went into illustrating this book, and charmed by how expressive the wood cut prints are.
I found some unusual information on the back of the title page of this old book which was published in New York.
“A Wartime Book
This complete edition is produced in full compliance with the government’s regulation for conserving paper and other essential materials.”
There’s also a patriotic logo, see above. An eagle in flight carries a book in it’s talons. A banner in the eagle’s beak reads “Books are weapons in the war of ideas”.
What ideas does this book support?
You CAN go home again. Nature is a source of endless wonder. The Irish are abundantly hospitable, whimsical and creative. Nothing in this book has anything to do with war, waged with weapons OR ideas.
Wikipedia has a highly informative biography of Gibbings. He was much better known for his wood prints than his books. I’m curious about a book entitled The Radium Woman: The Life Story of Marie Curie. Gibbings is listed as co-author with Eleanor Doorly. His contribution was woodcuts used for chapter headings. Scientist Marie Curie has long been a heroine of mine.
Lovely is the Lee reminded me of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (see this blog, March 25, 2021), but Shepherd stayed within one mountain range, while Gibbings travelled widely.
If you want to read something calming, old travel books are the best!
“Days and Nights at The Second City” by Bernard Sahlins
This book was a gift from my son, to expand my knowledge of his world, the world of comedy.
Sahlins is a lively memoirist! His writing is energetic and descriptive. He begins by discussing the cultural importance of theatre, then the importance of acting. He values theatre as a way to connect with great minds, and documents changes in American (and global) society from the time he participated in founding The Second City (1959) until he sold his interest in it (1985).
What WAS The Second City anyway? It offered “theatrical review” in a cabaret setting (drinks served), a series of unconnected sketches about a topic. Sahlins is quite clear that “improv” (spontaneous theater) is something else entirely. Review sketches are scripted and carefully rehearsed. Second City offered cultural critique with lots of laughs. It was satirical, irreverent and subversive.
My favorite anecdote is as follows:
“A notable visitor was Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, who attended one night with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa climbing companion. Despite the fact that Tenzing spoke no English, he hugely enjoyed the show. I watched him from time to time, puzzled at his delighted reactions. Afterward he fell into a voluble conversation with the interpreter. It seems that Tenzing had constructed, from our unconnected scenes, a complete story, something like King Lear, about an old king and his two daughters, featuring an unsuitable marriage but with a happy ending.”
I love this! Art is universal, but that doesn’t mean it always survives translation.
More seriously, Sahlins writes about a massive cultural shift America experienced in the Sixties. Before that time, “Most working writers, actors, and producers were past their youth. Their target audience was certainly not the very young.” But that changed! “Youth took over…sex, drugs, rock and roll. Their songs moved out of the drive-ins and reached everywhere, even into geriatric centers. Their watchwords…attitudes…anti-war message…love-ins…Woodstock…marijuana took center stage.” “…before we realized it, we were swept up in the rush to an adolescent world.” Sahlins regretted that Second City became more “commercial” as this change progresses.
Does this explain the question we sometimes ask… “Where are the adults”? If someone teaches a course in post WWII America, they should include this book.
“To Have or Not to Have – Dispatches from one millennial’s uterus” by Katie O’Reilly in Sierra magazine.
My attention span is short these days, so I’ve decided to review articles instead of books. The November/December (2019) issue of Sierra magazine was a special issue examining:
- the changing climate
This article about (potential) parenthood caught my eye. Katie O’Reilly writes as adventure and lifestyle editor for Sierra magazine. She was born in the mid 1980s and is now just about the same age as I was when my older son was born.
When she confided her doubts about parenthood to her mother, O’Reilly was informed that HER own conception might have been derailed if her mother had become obsessive about the threat of nuclear annihilation, which was receiving attention from SANE and the Nuclear Freeze movement at that time. I remember! A movie called “The Day After” (about the impact of nuclear war) was released in November of 1983. Activist friends of mine were busy organizing watch parties. Newly pregnant, I just couldn’t deal with it. I stayed home, eyeing my TV as if it could turn itself on and inflict the movie on me.
O’Reilly brought my attention to BirthStrike, an organization for people uncertain about or opposed to parenthood, based on the future livability of planet earth. Governments, in particular, need to listen, as they have had little success in convincing people to have babies.
I also learned about a new psychological counseling specialty, called “baby decision CLARITY counseling”, which O’Reilly undertakes. She does not, in this article, announce a decision, but it sounds like she is leaning towards parenthood.
“ ‘Existential suicide’ may sound dramatic, but letting the climate dictate decisions about my uterus increasingly feels like a sign that I’ve acclimated to a dreary future, that I’ve stopped trying…” In her conclusion, she states “I’m looking forward to help my own hypothetical kid make the most of their time on the beautiful, ephemeral Earth they’ve inherited – whatever it happens to look like.”
Now, I wonder how women like O’Reilly will make decisions about pregnancy in the time of Covid plus (in America) racial turmoil. I’ve been (distant) witness to the arrival of a handful of babies since Covid struck. All, thank goodness, healthy and safe. One part of me wants to shriek “Don’t do it!” to anyone contemplating pregnancy, but I know that children have always been born in bad times, and no one is guaranteed peace and security. But here we are, with no way to know if “the worst” is over. I wonder how the “clarity counselor” has adjusted her practice. Who am I, a woman who gave birth in 1984 (of all years!) to offer an opinion!?
Say her name: Lillie Belle Allen, murdered in York PA, July 21, 1969. Race in America #1
As we agonize over the murder of George Floyd, the names of victims of police brutality are being listed in the media. I want to honor the memory of a woman who may be overlooked, Lillie Belle Allen. She was not killed by police, but the Mayor and Chief of Police in the City of York, Pennsylvania, had created an atmosphere so racially tense and poisonous that driving down the wrong street led to her death.
I wrote about this previously, here and here. I learned this tragic history in 2018, many years after the fact. It shocked me to realize that I moved to York in 1973, lived there two years, and never heard of Lillie Belle Allen, Henry Schaad or the York race riots.
What led up to the York riots, which are described in Wikipedia? In 1962, the City had imposed a discriminatory policy of aggressive policing in black neighborhoods, including the use of dogs. I don’t know why. I speculate that the white residents of York couldn’t tolerate the changes that came upon them in the 1950s and 1960s. African Americans from the South moved to York for work in its many factories. Suburbanization “hollowed out” the downtown. Schools were integrated by busing. Resentment festered. Gangs coalesced.
I am grateful to the York Daily Record and journalist Kim Strong for their reporting.
Some York residents regarded the summer of 1969 as a “draw”. One death on each “side”. I can’t accept this. Lillie Belle Allen was an uninvolved by-stander, not even a resident of York. Henry Schaad chose employment as a police officer. I regard his death as a particularly grim and awful case of the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. One analyst, writing 30 years after the fact, concluded he died because he was a police officer, not because he was white. (York’s police force was not 100% white in 1969.)
I’m saddened by the death of Lillie Belle Allen. If she hadn’t been shot, she might now be 78 years old. Who knows what those lost decades might have brought? To her family, I offer sincere condolences.
Personal History – Another Epidemic in my Life, AIDS/HIV – COVID19 #8
When I wrote my earlier entry about epidemics, I didn’t mention AIDS, and if asked, I might have said that the AIDS epidemic had little direct impact on me. But upon reflection, I realized that, though my contact with it was largely through one person, the impact was major.
Bill T hired me for my first (professional) job. I was 23 years old and had a new MSci degree in Chemistry. That might sound like a stretch for a job with the title “Environmental Protection Specialist”, but the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had left the country short of engineers, so the new Specialist title was created, open to anyone with a BS degree. Technically, I was overqualified (no one seemed to care). But more significant (and some people cared!), I was female. Engineering was a male dominated domain. The job I wanted was in a field office. I would inspect factories and institutions for air pollution sources, and investigate air quality complaints. Some potential employers would have discouraged me. Bill T didn’t.
Why did Bill give me a chance? Maybe because he was part of a different minority. He suffered from a chronic illness, hemophilia. In 1973, it was legal to discriminate against both women and the chronically ill. I’d already lost out on a well paid summer job because it was assumed to be unsafe for a woman to be in charge of a public recreational facility.
Bill T was working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (in part) because the private sector didn’t hire anyone whose health care might become expensive.
Bill talked freely about the ways hemophilia (aka “bleeder’s disease”) complicated his life, expressing some surprise that he had survived into his 40s. His background blood level of clotting factor was low but survivable, but any minor injury could cause persistent bleeding. A transfusion of clotting factor would resolve a bleeding episode, but damage might remain. His knees were stiff from bleeding in the joint, and his gait was somewhat awkward. Bill was a popular supervisor and colleague, and his staff was somewhat protective of him. We walked at his pace, and there was usually someone near him, in case he stumbled or lost his balance. This wasn’t planned. It just happened.
Bill offset the expense of clotting factor by donating his plasma for research, as he carried an unusual antigen.
I left my job in Pennsylvania in 1975, keeping in touch with Bill at the occasional professional meeting. Around that time, AIDS emerged globally. In the US in 1981, it was documented in gay men in San Francisco. In 1982, it was determined to be associated with two other populations, hemophiliacs and Haitians. I began to wonder what had happened to Bill.
For hemophiliacs (dependent on blood products for survival), AIDS was a catastrophe. The population of hemophiliacs in the US (1980) was around 10,000, and it is estimated that more than 4,000 of them died. In 1987, techniques to make donor blood safe were implemented, and the death rate dropped.
What did happen to Bill? The last time I saw him was around 1985. We met at a professional society meeting. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I don’t have AIDS!” I was spared the awkwardness of asking. I lost track of him after that, and his name was far too common for me to track him now.
Maybe I’m stretching the point when I say I got an important professional break from a man whose own professional trajectory had been impacted by discrimination. But I know that getting that job wasn’t a sure thing, despite my qualifications. I was lucky. Thanks, Bill!
“Such a Pretty Girl – A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride” by Nadina LaSpina – Covid19 #5
New Village Press, 2019, 332 pages, with photos.
I can’t read this book. In my first Covid post (#1, March 25) I wrote about the epidemics that impacted me, starting with polio in 1952.
Nadina LaSpina was born in Italy around the same time as I was born in the US. She survived polio at age 16 months, losing the use of her legs. Her family came to the US when she was thirteen years old, and she participated wholeheartedly in the political battles for disability rights and minority dignity. I’m glad the title of this book doesn’t include the terms “polio” or “paralysis”. The emphasis, rightfully, is on Ms LaSpina’s amazing life and leadership. Her police record (~50 arrests) attests to her willingness to engage in civil disobedience, including participation in Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Yesterday, during a small Zoom gathering, a dear friend shared her memories of polio, which sickened her brother and forced the family into quarantine. The fear is such a vivid memory.
Now, in the midst of an epidemic that is taking many lives, I focus on daily activities and whatever sources of encouragement I can find. A little web surfing yielded up to date information about Ms LaSpina. She had a full calendar of readings, book signings and discussions planned for this March and April, but all have been cancelled. I like this recent picture. I hope she’s waiting out Covid19 someplace safe and comfortable.
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini
This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.
Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.
This book gives insight into
- The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
- The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
- The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.
After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.
The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.
“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth
This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.
The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.
Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.
Having just read Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”. East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.
The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.
Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.
In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.
This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.