Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The (sometimes guilty) Reading Pleasures of Series

When I was a child, I read basically everything I could get my hands on, and that included series, like the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and all of Alfred Payson Terhune. Terhune was the author of Lad, A Dog, Lad of Sunnybank, and a seemingly endless supply of books about dogs, usually with sad endings. Whe I was 10, a neighbor brought over a box of old Bobbsey Twin books while I was recovering from a mysterious virus. I read them all -- old fashioned stories and language. Another favorite series of my sister and I was Cherry Ames. Cherry was a nurse who had a new job in each book, and of course an adventure or mystery to solve. She also had two boyfriends, one a doctor and one a pilot. What a fabulous life!

My 4th grade students love series, too. At the end of nearly every read-aloud book, someone will ask, "Is there a sequel?" Usually not, but I understand the desire to stay with those characters and see what happens next. But, there are lots of new series for kids to fall in love with today. Harry Potter, of course, but also The Mysterious Benedict Society, all of the Rick Riordan novels, Chasing Vermeer, and many, many more.

I still love series, mostly mystery series. I enjoy the mystery part, picking up the clues and trying to figure out the solution, but even more, I enjoy the characters. A mystery author has many books in which to develop her characters and I notice that there are series that start out with a rather one-dimensional main character who develops into a complex person over the course of several books.

I started my attachment to mysteries with Sherlock Holmes, then Agatha Christie and the Lord Peter Whimsy novels. I was hooked on British mysteries for awhile and hunted down Marjorie Allingham and her Albert Campion series and Josephine Tey's series featuring detective Alan Grant, know for his "flair." I read Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in the Southwest with Navajo detectives. A number of my favorites feature detectives with a special gift for the mystical or unexplainable. One of these is an obscure mystery writer, Timothy Holme, whose detective is Italian and seems to see things from past centuries. Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs also has a special connection with intuition and the mystical. But now this is turning into a list of mysteries that I love!

The series I am thinking about today is Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody mysteries. These stories are set in the late 19th to early 20th century in Egypt and England. Amelia and her husband, the dashing Emerson, are archeologists in the golden are of Egyptian archeology. Peters includes lots of interesting factual information about ancient Egypt and archeology. She also includes an homage to the swashbuckling romantic novels of authors like Ryder Haggard.

I had all of the books and was waiting for the next one, when I belatedly learned that Elizabeth Peters had passed away. Well, I thought, the last novel, The Tomb of the Golden Bird, did have a final ring to it, with many of the characters finding resolution to relationships and life paths. It was not a bad place to end, leaving the characters in their beloved Egypt, never growing any older. Then, this summer I found out that a new Amelia Peabody novel was out! Peters had begun it before her death and a close friend, who is also an author, had completed it. Would this novel take the characters forward? Would that be a good thing?

I bought the book -- in hardcover! I couldn't wait. As it turns out, this new novel goes back in time. The Tomb of the Golden Bird takes place in 1922 with much of the action revolving around the discovery of King Tut's tomb. The new novel, The Painted Queen, takes place in 1911. I have so far read the introductions to the book, which explain the process of finishing it. And so I learned that Peters did indeed intend that The Tomb of the Golden Bird would conclude the story of the Emersons, leaving readers to imagine them happily excavating in Egypt. It's rather like Sherlock Holmes, who supposedly retired to Surrey to raise bees (though a number of authors have recalled him from his pastoral life).

I'm looking forward to reading The Painted Queen and revisiting these lively characters once more in a new story.

But aren't we lucky that we can always reread our favorite books?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Block Party!

On Saturday our street held its first ever block party and it was great!

We have lived here since 1979, but we only know a few of our neighbors. People come home, drive into their garages and shut the door. And in the winter here in Chicagoland people mainly stay inside unless they're shoveling snow. So when we got the flyer on our front door, I responded right away, with the idea that we could at least go for a little while and see how it went.

This being 2017, the flyer directed us to go online to a site where the organizers had put in information and a way to sign up to come and bring things for the party. And that way they got everyone's email and could communicate electronically.

So on Saturday evening, my husband and I walked across the street to the cul-de-sac where tables and lawn chairs were already set up and a bouncy house was going strong in one of the yards. Everyone had name tags with first names and house numbers. We talked with many neighbors -- everyone was eager to connect with other families. We found out that there are a ton of families with young children on the street. There are also a fair number of retirees. One older couple lives right across the street from their children and grandchildren -- lucky people! One couple is one of the first residents of the street. Other people have lived here only a few years.

We heard the story of the house fire that led to gutting and enlarging one house. We heard about another house that has an awesome kitchen that is practically professional. Our neighbor across the street has a rock band (they practice elsewhere!) and has opened shows for bigger names. We have teachers, engineers, veterans, a realtor, a tailor, and lots more. It was a little like opening a mystery box and seeing unexpected, heart-warming surprises pop out.

In thinking back, I was reminded of an episode of the old TV show, That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas as a young woman trying to make it in NYC. In that episode, she is invited onto a game show and is completely stumped when she has to answer questions about her neighbors. In an effort to do better when she is invited back the next week, she holds a party in her apartment to get to know her New York neighbors and, of course, complications ensue. But, when she arrives back at the game show prepared to talk about her neighbors, she is instead asked about her old neighbors from her childhood neighborhood in Brewster, New York. She then totally nails it, sweeping the competition.

I don't know if I remember enough about my childhood neighborhoods to win a game show, but I do remember that growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, we kids roamed the street, playing at each others' houses, riding bikes, and running in and out of each others' houses. Our parents all knew each other, too. We didn't have block parties, but everyone talked to each other. People spent more time outside and so they saw each other. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

So many things have changed since those days that I think for most of us there's no going back. But a block party is a happy reminder that we can connect and enjoy each others' company.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Biography, and being a detective/historian

One of my summer projects has been to begin working on writing a biography of Eliza Lucas Pinckney for middle grade readers. I wrote a little about it here, explaining why I decided to do this. I'm excited about this - I'm learning so much,not only about Eliza Pinckney and her time (1722-1793) but also about the process of biography writing.

I've read some great essays by biographers about writing biographies. I recommend the book Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, which is transcripts of a series of talks by American biographers about the process of researching and creating a biography. It's fascinating.

I'm now reading the first adult book I have about Eliza Pinckney. It's a biography written by a descendent of hers, Harriott Horry Rabenel, in 1898. Rabenel used lots of Eliza's letters for this biography, interspersed with other information and her own opinions. Reading it in 2017 is like trying to see the 18th century through a 19th century lens. Both Eliza and Rabenel include information that is difficult or incomprehensible without some further context. Sometimes Rabenel will explain things that Eliza writes about, but sometimes she doesn't and also adds 19th century information that needs explanation in the 21st century. Maybe I'll find that context in another source later on. I have a greater appreciation for historians now.

Eliza Pinckney is mostly known for her successful efforts to bring indigo planting to South Carolina. She was left in charge of her family's three plantations when she was 16 or 17 years old. Her father, an officer in the British military, had been called to the West Indies during one of the wars with Spain. She was passionate about botany and after trying for several years, she figured out how to grow indigo successfully, creating a hugely profitable crop for the colony.

Her life was much more than just indigo, however. She was an extremely busy young lady. She read, studied, taught her younger siblings, visited extensively with friends, and wrote many, many letters. She also married, had three children, and was widowed at a fairly young age, at which time she took over managing her husband's property.

I have been reading the letters that are included in the biography and I am struck by her lovely writing style. We have many of the letters because she copied nearly all of the letters she sent into a "letterbook." (Again, when did she have time for this?) Her writing style reminds me of Jane Austen, which makes sense as they are about the same time period. Here's an excerpt  from a letter written when the family spent several years in England:

"Poor dear Miss Carew! I am so very sorry her journey to Bath has been of so little effect, we have had such dreadful weather for her complaints. I long much to see her, and we shall certainly wait on yr. Ladyship and Sir Nicolas before we leave England..."

What a lively voice! After her beloved husband died unexpectedly, she wrote from South Carolina to her sons, who were in England at school. This time I was reminded of Charles Dickens (the spelling and punctuation is the original):

"How shall I write to you, what shall I say to you my dear, my ever dear children? but if possible more so now than ever, for I have a tale to tell you that will pierce your tender infant hearts; you have mett my children with the greatest loss you could meet with upon earth your Dear father the best and most valuable of Parents is no more."

We are so lucky to have these letters. They bring Eliza to life again in a way. I'm only surprised that no one else has written a modern biography of this interesting woman.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Opportunistic Garden

This morning I spent 45 minutes weeding our garden in an attempt to prepare to plant something. I know, it's July 4th! Most people's gardens are planted and flourishing by now. However, I'm a teacher and the spring planting time is also end-of-school time, with the rush to finish everything, write report cards... It's a runaway train. So gardening falls to the wayside. On top of that, Chicago has had a lot of bad weather -- torrential rains especially.

I am also not a good gardener. I love plants. I can do pots quite well and we have a lovely array of flowers and herbs in pots on our patio. It's low stakes gardening.

The garden that challenges me is the plot in our back yard that used to be our vegetable garden. We planted tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, and so on, until our trees grew so large and shady that the garden no longer got enough sun to grow vegetables. It sat rather neglected, gathering weeds and fallen branches, with a lone rhubarb plant in one corner.

However, it does include a few accidental "crops." About ten years ago I made the mistake of putting a mint plant at one end of the garden. If you've ever planted mint you know that once in the ground you will never get rid of it! So at one end of the garden we have a mint crop. I pull plants regularly to keep it from taking over everything and they smell nice. Mint tea, anyone?

About 15 or so years ago, our then next door neighbor decided to plant tiger lilies on his side of the fence. We have had a couple new families in that house since then and the tiger lilies have disappeared from that side of the fence but have taken up residence in our garden. I have dug them out in the past only to have them return, so this year I decided to let them have a little space in the plot. They are pretty.

Our last unexpected squatter is strawberries. I think they probably migrated from the composter into the garden and are now established in one corner of the garden. They are pretty with tiny red berries, and the squirrels and birds enjoy eating them.

What about the rest of the garden? Some more work and then hopefully some new, shade-loving plants will join the opportunistic residents.

Our potted patio garden

Our shady garden with the opportunistic residents

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer - what's the plan?

Many people had their summer goals and plans in place several weeks ago. Actually, I did too. But today I feel like summer is really beginning.

Last week my husband, daughter and I, along with much of our extended family, made our yearly trip to the Twin Cities for my mother's birthday. This year she turned 95, a milestone requiring more than the average visit with a cake and visits to her favorite restaurants. So we planned a small party. We reserved a room at her assisted living place, invited some extra relatives and friends, and got two cakes. It was a lively party with lots of conversations. My brother, sister and I got to talk with cousins we hadn't seen in quite a few years and were reminded of what a nice family we have. My mom had a lovely time and did not not get exhausted.

We're now back in Illinois after 4 days in Minnesota. With no other trips on the horizon, it's time to actually do something about those goals.

The big one: writing. The other summer goals -- cleaning, organizing, updating some curriculum -- will all fall into place. Writing, though, is like the dark hill up ahead of you. You see it vaguely. Maybe it's even shrouded in fog. How will you approach it? Will you approach it? Is there a feeling of trepidation? For all of my thinking about my plan, there's still a lot of mystery involved. Will I be able to accomplish this goal?

I've been thinking about this project for a long time. Every year when my students research and write a report about some topic related to the American Revolution, I am struck by the lack of biographies about some interesting people of that time. Or sometimes I find that the biographies, in my opinion, don't fit the bill. So after mulling this over and considering the biographies I wish existed, I picked a person to research and write a biography of -- Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Highlights of her life include horticulture (experimenting and discovering how to grow indigo in South Carolina, thus creating the first really profitable crop for that colony), running three plantations at age 17, and raising two sons who were important in the American Revolution. She was obviously not what we think of as the typical colonial lady.

The challenges are finding enough information about her, as well as about Antigua, where she was born, in the 18th century. Another challenge will be writing an interesting biography for middle grade readers. And of course the ever-present challenge of sitting down and doing the work!

Time to take the plunge.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Perceptions, youth, and humor

My friends all know that when I'm not teaching I am likely to be playing my horn in some community group. Besides getting to play some pretty great music I have loved meeting people I would not have known otherwise.

A couple months ago one of my horn-playing friends from a community orchestra asked if I wanted to play Mahler's Symphony #2 in another community orchestra. What a great opportunity, I thought! I have never played any Mahler in concert. Gustav Mahler was a giant of the early 20th century, composing 9 symphonies, plus many songs and other works. He was also a top conductor. His symphonies are all large works, usually calling for many extra players beyond the usual symphony roster. So to get a chance to play any Mahler symphony was awesome.

A standard symphony calls for 4 horns. Some early symphonies call for only two. Mahler 2 calls for 8 horns on stage and 4 off-stage! It also calls for extra trumpets, woodwinds, and a full chorus. I am playing one of the off-stage parts, though it turns out that we start off-stage, then go on stage to play for a bit, then back off-stage, then on stage to end the symphony. We've had one rehearsal and it is so much fun!

My Slice of Life today, though, is about perceptions, surprises, and finally, humor, while rehearsing Mahler. I had met one of the other off-stage horn players earlier this year while we were both playing a concert with a different community orchestra. She is a young woman getting started in her music career after graduating college. She is charming, friendly, and a good colleague. Before our first rehearsal of the off-stage players last week, we were chatting with another of the horn players, who neither of us knew. He was very friendly and asked me what I do when I'm not playing horn.

"I teach 4th grade," I said. We chatted about my school and the university where he is teaching.

A bit later my young hornist friend said to me, "Wow, I didn't know you were still working!" Ouch! Yes, I am the oldest off-stage horn player, though not the oldest of all the hornists. I didn't think I looked so old, but many people are retiring younger these days, I said to myself. In the end I decided it was a funny story to share with friends also in my age range. My friends winced a little and chuckled.

Then... a former student and her mother stopped by my school to visit. After chatting and catching up, the mom said to me, "Let us know when you're retiring. We want to come to the party."

Really, I'm not that old. I have at least a few more years in me!


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Super Power - Listening

If I were going to be a character in the Star Trek universe, I would be one of Guinan's people.

Guinan is in Start Trek: The Next Generation, the one with Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Her people are described as a race of listeners. She comes on board the Enterprise as a bartender in the lounge, a wonderful place for a listener. Her people are also very long-lived. In the one episode that she takes a contral role, several crew members have to travel back in time, where they meet Mark Twain and a young Guinan. Meeting Picard, she at first thinks he was sent by her father to tell her to come home. She says, "Tell him I'm not done listening." (And if Mark Twain is around, maybe one would never be done listneing!)

She is a better listener than talker. She seems to have trouble explaining herself at times, giving partial information (which often helps the plot more than if she had told everything she knows!).

I would fit in so well with Guinan and her people. I love to listen to people, I love to hear their stories and appreciate other people's lives and experiences. I also am not the best conversationist. I frequently can't think of anything to say. I would rather be listening.

In another Star Trek storyline, we learn that Guinan's people were attacked and driven out of their home. They are now scattered across the galaxy. So sadly, even if they were real, I couldn't go find them. On the other hand, maybe they are here, among us, listening intently and sympathetically.

And Guinan is played by Whoopee Goldberg! So cool!