Thursday, March 30, 2017

River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper: Resistance in 13th c. Sri Lanka

Writers and artists employ powerful tools that can shape how a society views itself, its past, and how it envisions its future. They are often the front line of resistance.

River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper came to my attention when the author followed me on Twitter. I downloaded a sample of his book and enjoyed his writing and bought a copy of River of Ink. (Yes, I bought a book, this was not a free review galley!)

The novel is fiction but the downfall of Sri Lanka under a destructive military takeover is history. It was fascinating to read about a time and place so foreign and unfamiliar.

"Do you remember the mynah birds that used to live in the courtyard outside your room? On the day the city fell, they were all twittering louder than I'd ever heard them, and flying from tree to tree in a flock. The noise was tremendous...You must remember this. You were sitting right there beside me, your back straight and your forehead furrowed, murmuring the letters to yourself as you cut them." from River Of Ink chapter one

Asanka is the court poet in the diverse, international Sri Lanka of the 13th c. He enjoys a pampered and luxurious life. He writes love poems for men wishing to please the women they love. His own love life is murky; his wife disdains him for he has a mistress, a palace servant, Sarasi. He is teaching her how to write.

The ink is mixed of charcoal and oil. A metal stylus cuts the palm leaf paper into sinuous shapes.

Life in Polonnaruwa changes in an instant when Kalinga Magha comes from the mainland with his army and elephants, intent on destroying the Sri Lankan civilization, looting and murdering his way to the capital. He murders Asanka's king, forces the queen into marriage, and demands that Asanka translate his favorite Hindu sacred text into Tamil, the language of the working class. Magha intends to enlighten the Buddhists with a story of dharma, the battle between lord Krishna and Shishepal over the girl they both love. Magha demands the burning of books as part of his cultural takeover. And finally, Magha decides to take Asanka's love for his own queen.

The downfall of a society, a city, a culture is a horrible thing to read about, and I was very aware that it has happened over and over again throughout the ages. Powerful men believe they bring a better religion or government to justify their motives. And the ordinary people are trampled and murdered, and yes, resistance groups rise up. In the story of the particular lies the story of human history.

In his acknowledgments, Cooper finishes by saying "Finally this book goes out to all the translators, artists and writers around the world who continue to create beauty and freedom from beneath the heel of oppression. Today you are more necessary and powerful than you could possibly imagine."

River of Ink is an impressive book that both entertains, enlightens, and inspires.

River of Ink
Paul M. M. Cooper

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman: Imagining a Better World

We have lost our vision, Rutger Bregman writes, mired in old paradigms and blind to the possibilities we should be imagining. We could be realizing the world predicted by 20th c thinkers.

Subtitled "How We Can Build The Ideal World," Utopia for Realists is an international best seller, first published in the Netherlands where it ignited a debate and inspired a movement.

Bregman begins by reminding us of how recently life was a "vale of tears," "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as philosophers wrote in the 16th c. With the explosion of new technology and prosperity over the last two hundred years, humanity has achieved a standard of living that Medieval folk would consider Utopia; indoor heat and cooling, flush toilets and clean water alone would make them marvel. So would obesity from an overabundance of easily obtained food, the magical ability to protect ourselves from smallpox and polio, and paved roads we travel at 70 mph--without fear of highwaymen robberies.

Have we reached Utopia? Or is there something we can do to make life even better? How can we solve the problems that remain: fearfulness, unemployment, quality of life, poverty.

The welfare state 'from a bygone era' doesn't work today. Globalization and the cost of higher education have impacted the stability of the Middle Class. Upward mobility for the poor no longer happens.

Bregman wants to "fling open the windows of our minds" to discover "a new lodestar." He presents studies and experiments about how we treat the homeless and the poor and challenges our traditional mindset that people are to be blamed for their own poverty--they just have to work hard and save. We have created welfare programs for those in need, which are costly and do not solve the basic problem. What happened to the expectation of the 15-hour workweek? Why are we spending more time working, impacting our health and our families?

Bregman wants us to dream new dreams and embrace ideas that can change the world for the better. Thinking outside the box has made a difference: abolition, universal voting rights, and same-sex marriage, he reminds, were all once considered impossible. All it takes is "a single opposing voice.

The basis of Bregman's new Utopia is a guaranteed basic income. He presents studies that demonstrate the success of such programs. In 1967 universal basic income was supported by 80% of Americans and President Nixon submitted a bill to eradicate poverty.

Other changes he offers include shorter work hours, proven to increase productivity, reconsidering the importance of the Gross Domestic Product as our economic standard of success, improving quality of life, open borders, taxing capital instead of labor, and adjusting salary to a job's societal value. At a time when productivity is a record levels, there are fewer jobs and lower salaries. "We have to devise a system to ensure that everybody benefits," he writes.

There is an old saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Instead of holding more tightly to the old ways we need to envision innovation. Perhaps books like this will spur discussions and reevaluations.

One can only hope.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Bregman's TED talk:

Utopia for Realists
Rutger Bregman
Little, Brown & Co.
$27 hardcover

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Life and Times of Folk Musician and Social Activist Peggy Seeger

Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics by Jean R. Freedman is the first biography of folk musician Peggy Seeger.

The Seegers are famous as musicians and musicologists. Peggy was half sister to Pete Seeger the famous banjo-strumming political troubadour, and sister of Mike Seeger who specialized in 'old time ' country music of the rural South.

Their father Charles was a folk music scholar and collector, taught at University of Berkeley, and was responsible for creating the first musicology course in the United States. Charles' first wife Constance was a concert violinist and taught at the Institute of Musical Art, which became Julliard. Their children included Pete Seeger.

After their marriage failed Charles met Ruth Crawford, a musician, composer and folk music anthologist. They married and their children included Peggy and Mike. The children grew up surrounded by folk music, pacifism, and a political bent supportive of the working class.
Peggy and Mike learned banjo from their half-brother Pete's book How To Play the 5-String Banjo.

Alan Lomax invited twenty-year-old Peggy to London for a job singing and playing the banjo. She had a sweet, clear voice. An older, established British folk singer, Ewan McColl, saw Peggy perform and their lives were changed unalterably.

Ewan McColl was "equal parts poetry and politics, artistry and activism," a collector and singer of Scottish folk songs with a remarkable baritone voice. The forty-one year old Ewan said his senses were "utterly ravished' when he heard Peggy play. McColl came from the poor, working class. His plays, songs, and radio theater addressed political issues of his day-- workers rights, human rights, fascism, and apartheid.

Ewan and Peggy fell in love, but it was years before Ewan was divorced. Peggy became a British citizen by marrying another singer so she could remain in England. They created the Radio Ballads documentaries, Festival of Fools, The Critics Group, and founded Blackthorne Records.

Ewan wrote Peggy a love song to use in concert, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, in 1957. When Roberta Flack covered the song in 1969 it became a hit. Suddenly McColl and Seeger were financially secure. You can hear Peggy sing the song at:

 Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1965. Photograph: Brian Shuel/Redferns
As the times changed so did Peggy's music. She reflected the Women's movement with her most famous song, Gonna Be An Engineer. The song from 1979 begins with traditional social expectations for a girl:

Momma told me, Can't you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you're older, dear, and maybe
You'll be glad that you're a girl

The girl does as she is told until she finally gets the job as an engineer. But she faces stereotypes at work:

You've got one fault, you're a woman
You're not worth the equal pay

To sum up, she sings,

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I'm just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I've been a suck ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I'll fight them as a woman, not a lady

I'll fight the as an engineer

Ewan's later years were plagued by illness. Shortly before his death in 1989 Peggy and fellow singer Irene fell in love. In 2006 they had a civil marriage.

I was glad to learn more about Peggy, who I knew through the radio and recordings. She was an amazing woman, pioneering feminist, and accomplished artist.

I have long enjoyed Ewan McColl, especially his Broadside Ballads on which he sings King Lear and His Three Daughters (which you can hear at You can hear Peggy on YouTube at

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Peggy Seeger
Jean R. Freedman
University of Illinois Press
Publication March 13, 2017
$29.95 hard cover
ISBN: 978-0-252-04075-7

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Nancy's Sophomore Slump

Me, age 15
By Tenth Grade I felt like an 'old pro' at high school. The year was a heady journey of ups and downs. I went on my first date, studied journalism, saw the end of a friendship and the deepening of others. That spring, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. A boy at school died. And Mom suffered a major health crisis that hospitalized her for weeks.

Me, fall 1967
I had taken Algebra in summer school so I could 'catch up' to my friends and take Geometry as a sophomore. I started out ok, but couldn't keep up and failed the class.

My geometry teacher Mr. Jacobson and I had a 'special' relationship. One day he said I was his favorite geometry student. "He kept bugging me and asked, "Who's your favorite geometry teacher?" That spring, when I was flunking the class, I told one of his honors geometry students to "kick Mr. Jacobson hello for me," and she did. She said he laughed and thought it was 'sweet of me' to remember him. When I came into class he told me, "I got your hello." I apologized, but he said, don't think of it, adding that he was "happy to fill my head with geometry."

About Journalism class I wrote, "Mr. Rosen's going to be a real peach of a teacher." I loved the class, even selling the Herald newspapers and Lancer yearbooks. I wrote, "Everything Mr. Rosen says sinks and goes deep into me. I looked through all my old Heralds and my Lancer.  I bet I’ve looked at my yearbook a million times."

I had Biology with Mr. Gasiorowski whose passion for his subject was infectious. What a great teacher and a great guy. He was a Chicago Cubs and Eddie Stankey fan.

When my dad brought home two rabbits in the spring I named them Eddie Stankey and Stanley Miller, a chemist Mr. G talked about who made amino acids in a test tube. My brother called the bunnies Spot and Snow.
Me with Edie Stankey and Stanley Miller
When Mr. G talked about Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape I bought a copy. Mom picked it up to look at and was appalled by the description of the human body response during sex. I told her I had read more salacious things in her books which I had picked up and read!

In October my folks went to the Parent open house. I wrote, "Apparently Mom and Dad had a good time at open house tonight. They liked all my teachers, especially Mr. Rosen and Mr. Gasiorowski. Mr. R said, “I don’t know if any of the kids have been telling you what we’ve been doing..”
“Yeah!” Mom said.  “Two hundred sentences…”
“That was a while back.”
“Now you're doing verbs and photography.  She likes your class best, I think.”

Girl's Choir 1967-68. I am in the second row from bottom, fifth from the right.
I was thrilled to be promoted to Girl's Choir. We wore a navy blazer provided by the school. I felt really sharp wearing it to school on days we sang. I was always singing, walking home or through the school hallways. They were a great group of gals and I made many friends in choir. I enjoyed Mrs. Ballmer.

Gym was required for two years. My gym locker was near that of the 'Greaser' girl who had bullied me in junior high, taking my hat and throwing it. One day I was singing while dressing and she said, "She's singing. Are you singing for me?" I replied, "If you want me to." And so I sang the second alto part of the song we were learning in choir. Her friends listened, too. They said I was good. I was never picked on again. It was a confirmation of something I had believed when a girl: if a bad guy came along all I had to do was play the piano or sing to calm the wildness.

I was still pining for the same boy. I wrote, "Mom left me with no hope. But Dad did. He said, “Don’t give up.” He said anything—even a fumble—boosts a guy’s morale. Let’s hope so. Of course, he ought to know, being a guy himself—once."

My old neighbor and friend Mike D. who had moved away was now a freshman at Kimball. I was too shy to talk to him. One day he gathered his courage and asked if I was me and then asked if I remembered the telescope and Homer the Ghost. I didn't have the courage to let him know I really had liked him. Partly it was pride, as I was a year older, but mostly I was shy.

A boy from my homeroom teased me for a while then asked me out. We dated for a few weeks, going to a school dance. We were dancing to My Girl when he kissed me, my first kiss. He wanted to go steady. I liked him as a friend, but we had little in common and I broke it off.
My homeroom class, 10th Grade. I am in the second row, third from right.
I followed several friends and joined the Political Action Club.

I never cared about sports but went to the football games at school to see my friends. I did learn a little about football.

I was writing more poetry:
The sunlight from the window,
Formed a stream of light flowing into the room.
The light illuminated the particles of dust
Floating on the river of melted sun.
The slowly sinking silver moon
Abandoned its position in the heavens
Giving it up to the victor, the sun.
A rosy dawn slowly, silently
Took over the sky transforming
A midnight blue to rainbows.
I read Gone With The Wind and wrote, "I feel I know Scarlet and Gerald and Rhett and Melody and Ashley all personally. I suffer with them. They haunt me, through Rhett's asking Scarlet to be his mistress, through Ellen's death, through when Scarlet finds the Tarleton twins have died. War is horrible. The book is so much a love story, but also it gives an excellent picture of Southern life and a great background to the Civil War. I never knew that was like that."

Other books I read included Alfred Hitchcock's Stories Not for the Nervous; The Moonspinners; The Return of the Native and Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy; Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote; J. D. Salinger's books; John Knowle's A Separate Peace; Green Mansions; The Foundation Trilogy by Issac Asimov; Kingsblood Royal; The Chosen by Chaim Potok; Anna Karenina; and Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein.

Tom and Dad playing at dining room table, Me and Mom.
No one else wore their hair that way. I always did something weird.
The fall began with the murder of a classmate's little brother in the Quickstead Woods near Kimball. Then my Grandfather Ramer was hospitalized after his first heart attack. One night some boys were trying to get the attention of the girls who lived across the street. Dad yelled at them to be quiet. They threw a beer bottle through my parent's second-floor bedroom window.

That October, listening to my records I wrote,

"Life is so baffling and unpredictable. It schemes, and you can only hope you’re on the right side of the conflicting forces and not on the overpowered side. It can cut you down like a scythe cuts the wheat. You fall at its mercy. It can be endless in every way as the stars. It can make you as exhausted as one lost in a pathless woods.

I won’t cry, no I won’t cry,
I won’t shed a tear
Not as long, not as long as you
Stand by me.

I feel so strange to feel so friendly
To say “good morning,” and really mean it,
To feel these changes happening in me,
But not to notice still I feel it.

"It’s all so strange. To say “good morning” and really mean it.  It makes me think.  Do they?  Does someone care, even if to say a “good morning?”  What is there left to say?  Is there something I’ve forgotten?  One person left blank?

“I can no longer keep my blind drawn,
And I can’t keep myself from talking.”

"But I notice, I feel it. What a strange effect a beautiful, overdubbed melody can have, creating a whole new emotion out of nowhere. Changing instantly how you feel. Maybe tomorrow I’ll know the answers. Maybe tomorrow I’ll know. I can only wait. And hope He will stand by me, as before."

At Christmas, our neighbors the McNabs joined my family for a turkey dinner. I played Christmas Carols on the piano and they sang along. Afterward, Grandma Ramer, Dad, my brother and me took a drive to see Christmas lights.

We ended up in Detroit. I wrote, "We saw Cobo Hall, Ford Auditorium, The Spirit of Detroit, Hudson's Christmas display windows. It began to snow, not much on the ground, but it does look beautiful to look out your window and see snow falling. Yes, we saw Detroit in all its glory, and the dark, back alleys that chill you to the bone. Not far from Grand Circus Blvd. and it's lighted stores, are broken-down tenements. But even there, in cracked windows, can be found a few colored lights, a lighted candle."

We spent New Year's Day in Tonawanda. I wrote, "Now I'm grown I can see people's personalities. Aunt Alice and Uncle Kenny, Skip, Tom Wilson. Skip says I can't marry until I'm 30--get an education. Uncle Ken is funny. Aunt Alice will have a baby in July. John [Kuhn] pities poor dad--"even your own daughter!"--because I pick on his big nose." I wrote that "Nancy Ensminger was impressed by my description of my life in Michigan." Sadly, Aunt Alice lost that baby.

In January I wrote, "I think the world's falling apart. Riots, wars, crime--dear God, I wish I lived on some obscure island in the Pacific or on an iceberg off Greenland. When will man find peace? Will he ever? We destroy all the beautiful things with ugliness. I wish I were a child again able to live in my own magical world and leave the rest up to the adults. But in this day and age, teenagers are caught up in it. Ever since I heard [a boy] talk about being drafted I've been scared for the boys I know. I hate war. Cutting down the nation's youth, without a chance, growing up too quickly."

The Herald, our school paper
On April 5, I wrote, "It happened again. Martin Luther King Jr's murder. Students wore black armbands, shaking their heads silently during Mr. Stephan's speech. They protested that the flag wasn't at half mast until the governor proclaimed it. They were emotionally upset. We all felt bad, and perhaps guilty for our race. We are the future who will deal with this problem. It's fortunate most felt compassion instead of victory."

On April 6, I wrote, "It seems we just all exploded happily over Hanoi's wanting a peace talk, and up, up, up went the stocks. LBJ had to stay and cancel his trip as riots broke out over King's murder and down, down, down went the stocks. I am convinced this country is a mess. Mr. Jacobson's been talking politics in class lately, and Mr. Burroughs is great on current events. I've learned a lot about him about Vietnam, stocks, the racial problem, and other problems of this Rat Race. Mr. Gasiorowski has been preparing us for sex, marriage, and other things about Adult Life and responsibilities. With Mr. Rosen we try to take this world and report all the latest facts on the Rat Race to the Rats themselves. So, in the end, you've gotta get involved. Mr. Gould tries to help your 'love life,' and Mrs. Ballmer helps you get enjoyment out of succeeding and working hard to get to the top. And Mrs. Dubois teaches teamwork. In school, they prepare you for Life."

On April 18, I went to Great Scott on Crooks Rd. with Mom to buy easy meals. Mom was going into the hospital for two weeks and I would be responsible for cooking, cleaning, and getting my brother up and to school. Every few years Mom would try another treatment for her psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

In May, my journalism class attended a conference for high school students held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We got press cards. My friends and I spent time wandering around town among the college students. I hoped to go to college, too. But I had not talked to my folks about it.

The photographer for the school newspaper and yearbook was the step-son of my Ninth Grade English Teacher, Mr. Botens. He would hang around our classroom, talking to Mr. Rosen. One time they were discussing how to photograph a person in a jar and they asked me to pose. I was wearing the Mod suit I'd bought with the money I found on my way to summer school. I liked Joe, but he was older and I thought he was too cool for me. My friend Dorothy knew him and one day we went to his house so she could return chemistry papers she had borrowed. In April she told me she asked him if he'd date me. She said he said he thought I was cute and would consider--it but he had a girl. That was bitter-sweet.

On May 15, 1968, I came to school and my friend Kathy gently broke the news that Joe had suffered a serious accident. I was stunned. At choir, my friend Peg told me Joe had died. The Girl's Choir sang Happy Birthday and I was offended, unwilling to have life go on in the midst of death. I grieved for days, recalling all my losses over the years. In the end, I decided, "So, follow his example, when he lived. Find the ambition and vigor he met life with. And die with the courage and determination he did, but only when it is time. Now you know death for what it is."
Newspaper articles on the death of Joe Botens

1969 Lancer tribute to Joe Botens
On June 5, I turned on the radio and heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. One of my close friends was upset, saying her parents didn't understand. There was another school rally and the Principal gave another speech and a prayer for Kennedy's recovery. On June 6 I wrote, "I prayed as I fell asleep: Don't let him die, don't let him die."
October 1967 Free Press photo of RFK visit to Detroit

While Mom was at the hospital the doctors discovered that she was being harmed by the medications she was on and they took her off them, cold turkey. She became very ill, losing both weight and her hair. The family feared she would die. Dad came home from work, ate, and went to the hospital. I was not allowed to go. I stayed with my little brother.  It was an awful, stressful time.

The school year ended. The last day I walked home alone, for all my friends had left already. I was very blue. Summer of 1968 was the lowest point of my life.

The stress of Mom's illness showed in my family. I was falling into depression, moody and unhappy. My folks were short with me. There were fights. They did not understand that stress affects the whole family.

My Uncle Dave was in a horrible car accident in Annapolis. I went with the McNabs to see The Graduate. I traded bedrooms with my brother, making me nostalgic thinking about all I'd experienced while in that room. I went bike riding with my girlfriends. We saw the fireworks display at the Clawson park, just a block away from where I now live.

Mom was still not well when my July birthday came. Instead of a Sweet Sixteen party like my friends had, I was lucky to have a cake and a family gathering.

I struggled with the evil in the world, the loss of my naive belief in the innate goodness of all people. Now, I wondered if I wanted to live in such a world. I prayed to just die and then felt terror. I realized my terror was because I believed in God and feared that my prayer might be answered. I had at least accomplished one goal: I was on my way to a real faith.

One summer day I took my brother Tom and his friend Bruce McNab to show them my daily walk to Kimball. After Freshman year all I could think about was getting back to school. This summer I was nostalgic for simpler, happy days. One year had changed everything.
Bruce McNab and Tom Gochenour

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Underworld by Kevin Canty

Why is it so hard to escape the town of our birth? What keeps us from growing into a new life? Are we trapped in brutal, short lives?

In 1972, Silverton, Idaho is in the middle of nowhere, it's only reason for being the silver mine that needs workers. Men are paid well, trading long lives and their health for good money. They work hard, then play hard, frequenting the bar to drink and brawl. They are proud of their toughness.

Silverton is infused with toxins that ruin skin and health.

"There was arsenic in the smoke, chromium, cadmium, lead. Part of what it cost to live here...people died here after a while, lung cancer, liver cancer, for a few months the other year everybody seemed to have leukemia."

The women think about leaving their men, and do leave men who can't leave the only life they know. And when someone does break out, like David who is in college, they feel alienated and conflicted, resenting the pampered life of green shady lawns and uncalloused soft hands.

"This was never going to be his life, anyways, these leafy maples that meet overhead, a canopy over the street. Shingled houses with white trim, green lawns, third stories, turrets and arches. In a way, it feels good to let go, stop pretending. This place has its membership and he isn't part of it."

The third year of college is ending when David hears there has been a disaster at the mine. He drives his VW home. His father and his brother work in the mines.

The disaster claims 91 lives. David's brother is one of the dead. The stunned town struggles. Widows drown their sorrows in booze but find there is no haven from regret and grief. Two men are trapped for 14 days, and coming above ground reevaluate their lives. David reconsiders his choice to leave for another life.

This is a story about grief.
"Everything in life can be taken from you in an instant. Any minute. She had known this before. But now she understands it."
"Her friend is dead. But she could only forget it or else think about nothing else, and there is nothing to think, nothing to say. It cannot be undone. It cannot be fixed. It cannot be tolerated...Something breaks inside her, a little thing like a Popsicle stick." 
One widow, Ann, who at twenty-two was already weary of her life and childlessness before the accident, now regrets not cherishing her husband more. Ann realizes she had closed the door on so many possibilities when she decided to stay in Silverton and marry. Now she is 'free' to choose again, but the choices seem limited.

Ann goes to a bar seeking a bartender who once seemed interested in her; now he doesn't recognize her and she thinks, "all this just seems so corrupt. A stimulus, a response, a line, a body. People just want to fuck...They see a woman, alone, vulnerable, they move in for the kill. That's how it is. A lonely woman is the devil's playground."

Ann had sung as a schoolgirl and now joins the church choir. She experiences the sense of greater community found in choral singing.
"The third time through the 'Ave Maria' she feels it, that lovely moment in which everything else drops away and she becomes this column of air, supported by the hips, her jaw dropping into the high notes, this physical thing becomes musical, becomes music, and all around her the same thing is happening and  they are singing together, almost beautifully."
Ann becomes friends with David's brother's widow Jordan, whose grief plays out in angry and self-destructive behavior. David is drawn to Ann.

Some don't survive the death of their loved one, some try to leave. Ann and David turn to each other in their grief and in their need reach, again, for love. They have been to hell and back. Perhaps they will yet find some comfort in the world.

The Underworld is fiction based on an actual mine disaster. I loved the writing and Canty's moving characters. I look forward to reading more of Canty's work.

I received a free book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

The Underworld
Kevin Canty
W. W. Norton
$24.95 hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-393-29305-0

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ice Ghosts: 200 Years Searching for the Lost Franklin Expedition

In 1847 Sir John Franklin left England and his adoring wife Lady Jane to seek the fabled Northwest Passage. He was 59 years old and it was his fourth journey to the Arctic. He had survived starvation on his second journey. This expedition was prepared with three years of food, included new-fangled canned foods. He had powerful, heated ships. The explorer Ross promised to rescue Franklin if he did not come home.

Nothing went as planned. Extreme ice stranded the ships. Their canned food was tainted. Their maritime boots and clothing were inadequate. Franklin died and his men left the boats encased in ice, journeyed on foot, and died of exposure and starvation.

Lady Jane pressed for a search and rescue mission and spent her fortune in the quest to find her husband. For over a hundred years, enthralled by the mysterious disappearance, men went on the hazardous journey to the Arctic, hoping to solve the mystery of the lost Franklin Expedition.

My interest in polar exploration dates to junior high when I read The Great White South about the lost Scott Expedition. Over the years I've read books including Frances Spufford's I Shall Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination and Knud Rasmussen's biography White Eskimo by Stephen Bown. I loved the historical fiction book based on Franklin Voyage of the Narwhal  by Andrea Barrett and Dan Simmons' supernatural take in The Terror.

The first part of Ice Ghosts recounts the history of the expedition and the early rescue attempts, presenting the historical facts. The second part of the book is a wonderful examination of the the modern search for Franklin, including Inuit culture and history and their contribution of new information about Franklin.

Watson vividly describes the experience of the Arctic--the initial thrill followed by the freezing that can take mere minutes. The months of darkness and isolation. This environment demands cooperation to survive. I loved learning about the Inuit culture and people and their contribution to the knowledge of Franklin through their oral histories.

Louie Kamookak is the great-grandson of an Inuk storyteller and respected shaman who assisted the the Inuit anthropologist Knud Rasmussen. Rasmussen recorded the Inuit way of life as it was before being disrupted by Europeans, including enforced separation of children into mission schools where they faced abuse, resulting in 4,100 deaths.

Kamookak also had a grandfather who was an Irish trader, Gibson, who had found a marker left by an 1859 search party, and who found skeletons in another location. Kamookak's grandmother had told him that as a girl she had seen Franklin artifacts; she had taken a blunt metal knife and refashioned it into an ice chisel.

A history of tragedy and bad luck shared by Franklin searchers did not prevent Kamookak from an obsession to learn more.  He recorded oral histories from his elders to understand what had happened to the expedition. The native people knew where Franklin's men had died and where the ships settled.

The search for the Terror, Erebus, and Franklin's grave has become an international battleground. Artifacts left in situ can be disturbed by a storm and lost. But if they are collected they will soon decay. As climate change melts the ice it turns the land into swamps. Oil companies hope to drill in the Arctic, which would endanger the environment; they have funded researchers whose knowledge and new equipment are helpful to their goal.

The ships have now been found and some artifacts collected. But the grave of Franklin is yet to be discovered. The 'epic hunt' remains, as does our fascination. Watson's book is an important contribution and is sure to help another generation fall under the thrall of the tragic story of the Franklin Expedition.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

See recovered artifacts at
See a video of the Terror at
Hear Stan Rogers singing Northwest Passage at

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
Paul Watson
W. W. W. Norton & Company
$27.95 hard cover
Publication Date: March 21, 2017
ISBN: 9780393249385

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Summer, 1967

The summer after freshman year I took Algebra to 'catch up' with the other kids. Grandpa Ramer tutored me and I passed. I was the only kid in the class who hadn't flunked Algebra during the regular school year. In other words--The oddball. I had also wanted to go to summer school because I liked school. Being around other kids was fun.
Summer 1967
On the way to school one morning I found a $20 bill on the sidewalk near a park. I wanted to start a bank account. Instead, Mom took me shopping and I bought a Mod suit in a calico floral print. The money disappeared. Later, Mom and I had a fight. I wished I had started the savings account instead of spending the money. Although never talked about, in the back of my mind I wanted to go to college.

Like my 'MOD" suite but in a different print
That summer Pat invited me over to her house to swim in her built-in pool. I wore Mom's late 1950s Catalina swimsuit for lack of anything else. It had a built-in bra, boy pants, and was very modest. Soon Mom took me to buy a 'modern' one piece suit. I actually liked the 'vintage' suit but I am sure it made me look dorky. Pat would invite other girls and sometimes invited a boy she liked and his best friend to join us.
Me, summer 1967 at my Uncle Don Ramer's home
One evening Pat and I went on a bike ride and were out until 9:30 pm, making both our moms mad. I was feeling lost that summer; Pat didn't understand but then I didn't understand myself. There was something inside of me that wanted something, but I didn't know what. After I got home and got my lecture, I went into the back yard to watch the bats flying in the dusk until the stars came out.

This was the summer that Katie and Skip Marvin came from Tonawanda and Dad and Skip went to the Boundary Waters, which Dad wrote about here. Katie bought me a floppy brimmed hat to wear with my new trench coat. I stuck my brother's plastic water pistol in my pocket and pulled it out on people. I called it my 'spy guy' outfit.

When Dad and Skip returned from their fishing trip I wrote,

"You gonna go to Hurley? You ain't gonna go to Hurley? Ya gotta go to Hurley! So they went. Would you believe? 17 bars to a half block. And--er, um--prostitutes? Show girls?

"Yes, they're back. Gilford Van Marvin--Skip--and Dad. Katie and Skip leave Monday. I'll miss Katie. I remember her putting on her false eyelashes, the black hat, the shopping trips, the steak dinner. I'll miss Spooks [the Marvin dog]. Spooks jumped in the pool. Dad and Skip are all beard."

I never thought about Spooks name back then, but knowing he was a black and tan German Shepherd Now, I worry that it was a derogatory name.

My friend Lynne Martin and I went to summer dances at the ice rink near school and at the Farmer's Market in downtown Royal Oak. I was asked to dance but was too shy to even try. I'd learned the Cha Cha in elementary school, and my mom's cousins taught me the Twist when I was a kid. But I had no idea how to do these 'modern' dances and was too uptight to try. At the first dance, we saw Mogan David and the Grapes of Wrath, a local Detroit band.

At home, I listened to Mom's classical music record set. I especially liked Liszt's Les Preludes, the Eroica by Beethoven, the Mozart symphonies, and the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. I bought 45s of I've Got Rhythm, Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, Twelve-Thirty, and Spyder Turner's cover of Stand By Me. Stand By Me by Ben E. King remains one of my all-time favorite songs. The older I get the more I appreciate it.

I read Desiree' by Annemarie Selinko about Napoleon's first love and Up the Down Staircase.
Gochenour family outing: Tom, Mom, Dad and Me. 
My family liked to go on picnics to local parks. In the photo above you can see my guitar case in the trunk of the car. My piano lessons had been replaced by guitar lessons. I strummed chords and sang folk songs like Leatherwing Bat, St James Infirmary, and Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

It was the summer of the riots, which broke out a few days before my 15th birthday.

Monday, July 24, 1967, at 6:30 am I wrote,

"Riot. Murder. Fire. Kill. Burn. It's madness. The whole city's center--fires reaching high in smoke-filled skies. Dad's going to work--Highland Park--it, too, is part of it all. I dread what may happen today. The army moved in. 5:30 Dad and his fellow workers left [work], just left, 'cause the bosses didn't say to go home--they were scared. The riot was so near. Tonight's supposed to be worse. There's a curfew here in Royal Oak and the adjacent counties. We've been listening to WACK all day. Some people have a poor opinion. Like the man from the grocery store, mom said he wished he could kill a couple-- At school, no one spoke about it. "Black Power" was written with black chalk on the board and a "White Power" to oppose it."

The next day I wrote,

"And it goes on. Dad went to work. Troops moved in. We--me and Pat B.--watched planes and helicopters [passing overhead] last night, heading toward Detroit. A kid was caught with a gun on Main St. My parents heard a gun shot. It's sounding over the radio--gunshot along with reporter's voices, citizens, and snipers. It's started in Toledo and Pontiac. The Federal troops landed at Selfridge in Mt. Clemens, moved to the Detroit fairgrounds. They were called in at midnight. 21 dead. Hundreds wounded, more are homeless. Thousands under arrest. Radio newscast--Maryland, New York, Toledo--where does it end? 7:30 and it continues. St. John's [Episcopal Church] had a thing going--collecting food and clothing to cart to Detroit. It's amazing how so many people think. I believe we are the only ones with a good head on our shoulders. I expect to see an ark being built. Too many people are ignorant. Tomorrow is Mom's birthday."

I wrote a letter to Nancy Ensminger, never sent:

"500 fires since Sunday. Rioting, looting, gunshots, 21 known dead. Possibly more in burned houses. People, an unnumbered unknown, homeless. Firemen couldn't fight some of the fires, they were being stoned and driven out. Stores looted and or burned. Negroes and whites aren't fighting each other. They're fighting Federal Guards, State Militias. This is the third day. How long can it last? When it's done--how to rebuild our 5th largest city? How to feed and house the homeless? Where to put the people under arrest? They've put them on buses for the lack of jails. "They" want them to be killed. Johnson blames local officials for the riot not being under control. It breaks out in Grand Rapids and Pontiac.

"We have trouble trying to call people. They may have to turn off the water pressure to fight the fires. Mom's been getting the neighbors mad at her! They say, some, "Why don't they just go down and kill them all off?" No pity. Do they know what they've been through, all their life, just because they are BLACK? The frustration they've felt all along. They can't have equality. They can't get good jobs. They are limited where they can go, live, work. The hate. They learn early-- They look at the whites--they can go anywhere, can get better jobs because of their color. It's gotta break out. And now their houses are gone. Their children are hungry, steal for food. And even before--for once they can go in and get anything free. I've been through the slums. Saw them. It looked like one of Mr. Ashely's civil rights films. Even when it ends, there are problems of the homeless, the ruins, getting things back to normal. Rebuilding Detroit."

My mother's indignation at the racial hatred of our neighbors impressed me. She made no compunction about how she felt.

In August Lynne asked me to go camping with her family for a long weekend. We went to White Cloud Island in the Georgian Bay, Canada. A group of Canadian choir boys was on the island. We exchanged address with the counselor, Chris. He later wrote me a letter. He said that going home "it was crowded with seven kids and the three older people plus all the sleeping bags."

Lynne and I met some local boys who invited us to go to another island by boat. We were gone hours, getting to the island, exploring it, and coming back. Lynn's folks were horrified they'd let us go. It was a stupid thing to do; we were lucky the boys were respectful.

Lynne and her father in an abandoned house

Lynne on White Cloud Island
After graduation Lynne and I both went to Adrian College. She left after our first year of college. Many years later when I was living in Montague, MI there was a horrible car accident on the expressway near us, resulting in the death of a woman. Years later I discovered that the woman who had died was Lynne. I was shocked and sad.

My Uncle Dave Ramer and his family came from Annapolis to visit. To end the summer my family vacationed at a neighbor's cottage. The Beaupied cabin was on Douglas Lake near the top of the Lower Peninsula in Michigan, close to the Straits of Mackinac. Two of the Beaupied kids came along, too.

It was a fun summer.

Dad and Pat Beaupied

The Beaupied cabin from the lake
Every morning the Algebra classroom blackboard had new messages written in chalk:

Love thy neighbor--even if it kills him

Algebra sickness pills--25 cents; test answers $5.

It's not good for anything. It's just free.

EXIT Free flying lessons. Inquire on ledge.


Glix on you

Do unto others before they do it to you.

God is not dead. He's merely unemployed.

EMERGENCY EXIT (sign on window)

Ray. Please come home. I.L.Y.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Splendid Sampler from Pat Sloan

Pat Sloan's thirty-fourth book is The Splendid Sampler, a collection of 100 blocks from 80 designers. The 6" blocks employ varied techniques, including patchwork, applique', paper piecing, hand and machine embroidery, English Paper Piecing, and mixed techniques. Many are new, original blocks. 

Beginning February 14, 2016, the blocks were featured for free online, two a week, at her website found here.

A year ago I was able to see Pat at a local quilt guild. My post with photos of Pat's quilts can be found at

Pat Sloan
Quilters from the guild brought in the Splendid Sampler blocks they were working on. Over 23,000 quilters participated in the year long sew-along!

Great Lakes Heritage Quilters members Splendid Sampler blocks
Lucy from my weekly quilt group has made some of the blocks, including this embroidered block.

Martindale's That Patchwork Place gave me a free ebook of The Splendid Sampler in exchange for an unbiased review.

Why, you may ask, should you buy the book when the blocks were free online?

The book includes the patterns but also a lot more.

A well illustrated, comprehensive Quilting Basics offers all the great information you need for every technique, including hints such as how to avoid a 'shadow' under light applique pieces, pressing small pieces, preparing circles for applique, marking for embroidery, and how to make foundation papers easier to remove.

The blocks are arranged by technique: Patchwork, Applique, Foundation-Pieced, and Embroidered.

Each block pattern designer offers an artist's statement about her block.

Each block has a full-color photograph of the designer's completed block, supplies needed, and step-by-step, illustrated assembly instructions including hints for success.

Alternate colorways are often included and suggestions on fussy cutting and color choice.

I appreciated the construction illustrations showing how to sew rows to complete the pieced block.

There is a quilt gallery of completed sampler quilts in different settings and layouts and an alphabetical Block Index by the block's pattern name.

All patterns in the ebook have links to a PDF file for downloading.

80 designer's worth of inspiration, advice, and creativity in one book! Designers include:

  • Co-authors Jane Davidson and Pat Sloan
  • Anne Sutton of Bunny Hill
  • Lynette Anderson
  • Laurie Simpson of Minick & Simpson
  • Joanne Figueroa of Fig Tree Quilts
  • Lisa Bongean of Primitive Gatherings
  • Victoria Findlay Wolfe
  • Jackie Kunkel of Canton Village Quilt Works 

Every quilter, beginner or advanced, will find something to inspire them in The Splendid Sampler. 

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Publication date is April 4, 2017.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a Mystery

This month my library book club read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Many of us had read the book as a girl. Smith's novel of a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early years of the 20th c. is based on her own experience. I had wanted to reread this book after reading When Books Went to War and learning it was one of the most popular books among WWII soldiers.

As a teenager, I felt kinship with Francie because of her love of books, her vivid imagination, and her dream of becoming a writer.

The story takes place between 1914 to 1918. Francie's grandparents were immigrants. Her father Johnny was a charming alcoholic, a singing waiter. Her mother Katie was hard-working and frugal, determined her children would get an education and achieve the American Dream.

When pregnant with Francie, Katie's mother instructed her on the importance of books in the house. She insisted that a copy of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible be secured, and a page from each read to the child daily, along with fairy tales from the old country and stories of Kris Kringle.
"Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies."
"Yet you must teach the child that these things are."
"Why? When I, myself, do not believe?"
"Because, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination.The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe...Then when the world becomes too ugly to live in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination."
Francie spent a summer "stitching" on a "square of goods for a penny. It was the size of a lady's handkerchief and had a design outlined on it: a sitting Newfoundland dog with his tongue lolling out. Another penny bought a small reel of red embroidery cotton and two cents went for a pair of small hoops. Francie's grandmother taught her how to work the running stitches." Smith continues, "You were supposed to stitch a hundred of so of these squares and then sew them together to make a bedspread."
Penny Square Redwork pattern of Newfoundland dog
on my Presidents Quilt
School taught Francie about class prejudice. She realized that the clean, well-dressed children were given preference. "She learned of the class system of a great Democracy."

When the students are asked to identify their ethnic background, Francie insists she is American. The teacher pushes Francie who finally, in exasperation cries out that her parents were born in Brooklyn.

"Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read!" Books opens the world to Francie. "She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood." Francie vows to read a book a day for as long as she lived.

Francie's imagination brought trouble when she spun stories; her teacher had to instruct her on the difference between a lie and a story. Francie was aware that she "did not report things truthfully, but gave them color, excitement and dramatic twists." She saw that trait in her mother and wondered if imagination "colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it" instead of trying to change things for the better.

When Francie writes stories for school accurately reflecting her life the teacher admonishes Francie. The teacher explains, "poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exists. But one doesn't write about them." Francie asks, "What does one write about?" And she is told to delve into her imagination and find beauty. "But those stories are the truth!" Francie explains about her work.

Because Francie has pretended to live in another part of Brooklyn to attend a better school her teacher has no idea of the reality of Francie's life. The teacher accuses Francie's stories of being sordid, and after looking the word up in the dictionary Francie bristles with anger. Francie tries to write according to her teacher's wishes, but getting an A for pretty stories based on lies was repulsive to her.

Francie's father dies, leaving her pregnant mother, who worked as a janitor, the sole support of the family. The description of Katie, hugely pregnant, on her hands and knees to scrub floors disturbs me. Francie and her brother, both recent grammar school graduates, proudly work to support the family.

Katie decides that Neely will go to high school in the fall and Francie continue working to support them. Francie excels in every job but watches her hope for education die. Eventually, she takes college-level classes without credit, marveling that her grandparents could not read and here she was in college.

I enjoyed rereading this book on so many levels. Although the novel is episodic and disjointed at points, I was compelled to keep reading. Many of the characters are 'stock' types, and yet Francie and her family elicited my emotional involvement. Our book club members remarked on the disturbing racial stereotypes.

It is amazing how much the world has changed in 100 years! Automobiles, eclectic lights, bobbed hair, voting rights for women, all came in during Francie's girlhood. It is also disturbing how little the world has changed in 100 years: Immigrants struggling to adjust to their new life, class prejudice and xenophobia, the challenge of obtaining an education, the struggle between honesty and integrity and acceptance continues.


My copy of the book is the seventeenth edition and has a note, "this book is complete and unabridged in contents and is manufactured in strict conformity with Government regulations for saving paper, indicating it was produced during World War II.

There is a nameplate for Norma M. Farrell and written in ink the name Norma Schantz, 711 Ditman, Brooklyn 18, NY.
Add caption
So, of course, I had to search for Norma on

First I found her on Find A Grace Index. Norma Marie Schanz was born September 4, 1905, and died January 16, 1990, in Clearwater, FL. Norma was married to George Jacob Schanz, born March 21, 1907, and died September 23, 1963. They are buried at the Long Island National Cemetery in East Farmingdale, NY. George was a veteran whose service started May 6, 1943. He served as a Technician Fifth Grade in the Army.

Norma's father was Joseph E. Farrell, born in Chicago in 1872 and died in 1943. Her mother was Mary Leu, born in Ohio in 1879 and died in 1955. Joseph's parents were William, born 1822 in Ireland and died in 1902, and Annabell Roche, born in 1821 and died in 1874. Mary Leu's parents were Gottlieb Leu and Nanette Kander.

The census records show that Norma lived with her parents on a fruit farm near Kalamazoo. She appears on the 1910 and 1920 census as a girl. A 1919 Kalamazoo Rural Directory shows James and Marie living with children Annbelle, John, William, Norma, Ermond, Majoe and Uriel. James was a farmer and truck grower living in Oshtemo, located southwest of Kalamazoo. On the 1930 census, Norma appears working as a stenographer.

On August 2, 1930, Norma married Edward C. Rynbrand of Kalamazoo. Norma was a stenographer and Edward a shop clerk. Norma divorced Edward on May 10, 1935, for reasons of extreme and repeated cruelty. Edward then married Frances Hays.

In 1940 Norma appears (under her maiden name) living at home with her parents, along with a sibling and three nieces and nephews. She was a stenographer.

Norma and George Schanz were married September 18, 1945, in Kalamazoo, MI when Norma was 40 years old.

Georg Schanz's parents were Mary (or Marie) Weigele and Jacob Schanz, married April 20, 1901, in Richmond, NY.  George was born in 1905.

The 1910 census shows the Schanz family living on Broad Street in Richmond, NY where Jacob and Marie ran a bakery. The family appears on the 1915 Richmond, NYS Census with Jacob was a baker. His son George Jacob went by the name Jacob. They also had a daughter, Katy (Katherine).

In 1930 George lived with his mother Marie at 711 Ditman Ave. George worked as a chauffeur for a beverage company. Their property value was $9000.

The question is--how did Norma and George meet? In 1940 Norma was in Kalamazoo, and in 1945 she was married to George. George was from New York City and in the armed services. It's a mystery.

I loved how this book, which Norma received before her marriage to George, ended up in Brooklyn during Norma's early marriage.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reading The Barrowfields by Philip Lewis

Phillip Lewis's first novel The Barrowfields is so beautifully written, so evocative, that I can arbitrarily open the book to a random scene and be transported.

I received a hardcover copy of the novel through Blogging for Books. I opened the book to a scene where the protagonist, Henry, is celebrating at a going-away party with his law school friends. They have rented a house at the beach. The girl of his dreams has invited herself, Story of the golden hair.

There is a lot of drinking going on and Henry's friend J.P. is pontificating about writing, which "made it all sound so easy and color-by-numbers" that it "drove nails into the palms of my consciousness." What his friend does not know is that Henry's father had been a failed writer, and as his early promise was snuffed out by depression and alcohol abuse, he had ended his life.

Story finally arrives, "her hair wild and windblown, and I was stricken. Hard to say I would have been more impressed if the clouds had parted and the lord god himself, the King, Elvis Arron Presley had appeared in her place. I stood there barely able to speak." She walks over to Henry to greet him, but he is "unable to conjure a single syllable out of the space between" them.

That evening the gang "decided to caravan over the bridge to Charleston for dinner even though not one among us should have been driving." J.P. is still drunkenly bending Henry's ear about writing. On the way back to the beach house, Henry sits next to Story in the back seat of the car, the radio playing "one good song after another. The music was perfect." Story was smiling. And then Lewis writes,
"Back at the beach house, someone proposed in honor of the luminous night and clear sky that we all walk out to look at the stars. The doors on the back of the house facing the ocean were open, and the rush and hum of the mighty rolling waves called in through the doors and pulled us out to the sea.
"There is something extraordinary about standing on the shore at night under such circumstances. It is the closest one can come to feeling immortal--or to recognizing the euphoria of insignificance at the edge of the immortal sea. On a clear night the effect is more pronounced, for the stars burn numberless in the sky and remind us that time is beyond our understanding and that the universe is indeed indifferent to us--yet hardly benign."
I was transported to my own vivid memories of nights under the multitudinous stars, aware of the vastness of the universe, and suffering the fearful knowledge of my own smallness.

Henry identifies the stars, learned at his father's side. And J.P. recites Byron's Darkness, depicting a fatalist view of end of the world under an indifferent, blind universe, which begins, 

"I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air" 

After which a girl sings from Schoolhouse Rock, "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here"--my favorite Schoolhouse Rock song. Henry defers an opportunity to recite, then in his "weakened state of nostalgic drunkenness" imagines his father there and feels "gut-sick and benumbed. In a moment's time I hear it all, as if ten million words from as many books fell at once onto my ears in a drowning yet intelligible cataract. I hear my father's voice and his incantations. A flood of prose, remembered, unremembered, leftover like hellish debris from a writer's son's childhood. Every word he'd ever said to me. Every poem. Every paragraph he'd written and said aloud. Put that away, I tell myself. Put that away."

And, dear readers, there you have Henry's story: the ghost of a failed father he wants to forget, the girl he wants in his future just beyond reach-- or waiting to be touched--and the universe's indifference arching overhead.

I will revisit this novel many times.

Read Lewis discussing the 'easter eggs' written into his novel at

Listen to a clip from the marvelous audiobook at

I received a free book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Remarkable Journey of the First Female President of Liberia

Madame President, Helene Cooper's biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, was not an easy book to read. The history of Liberia is so horrendous, the violence so overwhelming, the suffering of her people unimaginable that I had to often step away; Cooper does not tidy things up for easy reading.

The story of Liberian female empowerment is remarkable, a courageous story from a country where an estimated 75% of the women have encountered rape and sexual abuse. Ellen herself rose from abused wife to a Harvard education, from mother to leadership in the international banking industry, from working for a dictator to her democratic election as President.

Ellen made mistakes and learned from them. She made contacts and used them. She switched from 'bush' to Western as needed. But always she believed in a better Liberia, a fiscally sound and prosperous future, a land of peace.

Liberia was established by United States leadership as a way of dealing with the 'problem' of free African Americans. The idea was to buy land and establish a country where we could export slaves and free blacks back to Africa. John Quincy Adams was against this plan on the grounds that the free blacks were Americans and had a right to remain in their country of birth. But many slave owning presidents liked the plan, including Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--for whom the Liberian capital Monrovia was named.

This book covers the series of brutal "presidential" dictators who siphoned public money for personal use, kept leadership in the family, and raised child armies to murder civilians--including their mothers--and rape their way across the country. The country's infrastructure was destroyed. The only way women fed their families was by going into the country to buy produce which they sold on the streets--the 'market women' who later organized, and by getting women out to vote, elected Ellen president.

Ellen's background in banking helped her secure loan relief, restoring solvency and the infrastructure--then Ebola arrived. Madame President called on President Obama to send aid. His quick response helped Liberia contain the outbreak, to the benefit of the country, the continent, and the world.

Reading about African history is a grim reminder of how tenuous maintaining a republic can be. It is also a reminder of how one person can make a difference, even a flawed person.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read about the Liberian born, Pulitzer winning author Helene Cooper at

Madame President: the Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
by Helene Cooper
Simon & Schuster
Publication Date March 7, 2017
$27 hard cover
ISBN: 9781451697353