This is not a book blog, but it's something I really wanted to get the word out about. I thought of doing it as an LTE, but the link for submitting one is broken. Plus, this is faster, and I'm ticked!
25 Notable Kansans?
I have received an automated e-mail from the Governor’s office each time another five notable Kansans were announced. (This effort is part of the celebration of Kansas’ 150th anniversary and has gone on over the past several weeks.) I have read each list with interest, but immediately noticed something about those chosen to represent our state as “notable.” Most of them are men. I watched as each list came out, hoping against hope that as the list became longer the number of women would increase. I received the final installment today, and then went to the Kansas State Historical Society website to confirm what I already suspected. Of the twenty-five notable Kansans, only three are women. Predictably, two of them were Amelia Erhardt and Carry Nation. The third was former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum.
The last time I checked, at least half of the people who helped make Kansas a great state were female! Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected anything better from an administration that has made what many consider to be attacks on women’s rights. As a student of history, I also understand that in the past, women had far fewer opportunities to affect life in the public sphere than they have in the past forty years. However I refuse to believe that in a state founded by pioneer families, where women worked, sweated, and often died to gain a better life for their children, there have only been three women of note in a century and a half.
I wondered what great Kansas women had been passed over for this honor, so I did a simple internet search on “Notable Kansas Women.” The first hit took me to a website called www.womenscalendar.org. Here are a few that caught my eye. Check out the website to see others.
Olive Beech, co-founder with husband Walter of the Beech Aircraft Company in Wichita. She is known as the “First Lady of Aviation.”
Georgia Neese Gray, first woman appointed as Treasurer of the United States.
Hattie McDaniel, first African-American actress to win an Oscar, and the first to be allowed to attend the Oscar ceremonies to receive her award for her role in Gone With the Wind.
Osa Johnson of Chanute, who lived an adventurous life through many trips to Africa with her husband Martin. Their many books and films thrilled generations, and their legacy is carried on at their museum in Chanute.
Lutie Lytle, born in Topeka in 1874, was the first African-American female to receive a law degree. She graduated from the Tennessee Law School in 1897.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I appreciate all of the people who are listed as 25 Most Notable Kansans. Every one of them made contributions to our state that we can look back on with pride. I’m also not an advocate of arbitrary quotas. But calling this list of Notable Kansas skewed is an understatement. Once I saw the final results, it didn’t surprise me to learn that the eleven-member committee appointed to choose those honored included only two women. Apparently the yearning for the "good old days" extends to all facets of life for some people. Put those women back in the kitchen where they belong.
Perhaps some folks need to remember that half of registered voters in Kansas are women. (I didn't look up the stats on that, but we are over half the population in America, so it's an assumption I'm willing to make.) Let's make sure that when election time rolls around, we choose people who recognize and appreciate the contributions of all Kansans.
My latest pick: IOU, by Nancy Pickard
IOU is one of the Jenny Cain mystery series by this fabulous Kansas author. I have been reading her novels for about four or five years, and can’t wait to get my hands on some more. This was a re-read for me, but I appreciated this fine novel just as much the second (or is it third?) time around.
The main character, Jennifer Cain is the director of a charitable foundation in the city of Port Frederick (aka Poor Fred) Massachusetts. Poor Fred is a smallish city, where Jenny’s family once owned Cain Clams, a generations-old clam packing company and one of the town’s major employers. In this novel, the death of her mother is the catalyst for a chain of events that leads Jenny to re-examine virtually everything she knows about herself, her family, and the town she calls home. The story begins at the graveside, where Jenny is startled by a hard push, and a voice whispering “Forgive me. It was an accident. Forgive me.”
Confronted with the reality of her passing and baffled by the strange incident at the gravesite, Jenny yearns to know more about her mother, who had been institutionalized for virtually all of Jenny’s adult life. No one has ever adequately explained the reasons for her mother’s long decline into a state of catatonia. Not even her mother’s best friend will talk to her about it. Mrs. Cain was a woman who appeared to have been defined throughout her life by her relationships to others: she is the former WIFE of Jimmy Cain, the disgraced and self-exiled scion of the Cain Family business. She is the MOTHER of two daughters. She was the fragile child whose Catholic upbringing taught her that only good girls get to go to heaven, but who is denied burial in the Catholic section of the cemetery at the behest of the semi-retired priest of her parish – a man who baptized her and knew her for her entire life. As Jenny begins to dig into who her mother was in a search for why her mother became ill, she learns many things. Some are shocking, others are simply heartbreaking. Eventually her sleuthing leads an unknown assailant to make an attempt on her life that is made to look like a suicide attempt. Assisted by her police detective husband Geof, an undeterred Jenny keeps right on asking questions even as her reputation in Port Frederick is torn to shreds.
This novel is heart-wrenching for a lot of reasons. If you have read other Jenny Cain novels, you know the character as a tough, no-nonsense, very savvy woman - the epitome of the strong modern female. In this book, Jenny is fragile and grief-stricken. She is having what her mother’s friend tells her is “the Alzheimer’s of grief.” She spends much of the novel in a semi-twilight state of exhaustion, with nerves stretched to the breaking point. Her greatest fear is that she, too, is cracking up. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother. The author is unflinching in her examinations of grief, society’s perceptions of and attitudes toward mental illness, questioning one’s own sanity, and her portrayal of Jenny’s broken family life. More than once, she moved me to tears.
Gender roles and our perceptions of them are also a strong central theme of this book. One sub-plot involves an art exhibit that is funded by the Port Frederick Foundation, where Jenny is the director. She approved it over the objections of several of the (older) men on the Foundation’s board. The idea of this exhibit intrigued me, and I wondered if it was based on actual works of art. It features parodies of famous paintings of female nudes, in which the gender roles are reversed. Picture Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” only one where the reclining nude in the center is male, and the lascivious onlookers are female business executives. It provokes Jenny and her husband Geof to paroxysms of laughter, but others are not amused. A group calling itself MOAC has sent threatening letters and attempted to sabotage the exhibit. Jenny and Geof wonder if those threats may have escalated to the attempt on Jenny’s life.
The gender theme is also examined through another character in the book, Marjorie Earnshaw. Marj has been the nurse at Jenny’s doctor office for more than forty years. She wanted to be a doctor, but her parents didn’t think that was appropriate for a woman, so she went into nursing instead. She has carried the resentment of those frustrated ambitions for her whole life, and often tells patients that she is a better doctor than the man who employs her. She is also not above slipping Jenny a few Valium “to help her sleep” without the doctor’s knowledge. Both she and the doctor are questioned by Jenny in her search for information about her mom’s medical condition. Both express the opinion that it is better for Jenny to leave it alone.
One side effect of Jenny’s search for answers about her mom is the need to finally find out the reason for the demise of Cain Clams. She has long been told that her father’s carelessness and mismanagement are what ruined the firm and threw hundreds of Port Frederick workers out of their jobs. The shame and disgrace of that failure has followed Jenny and family ever since. She wonders if that pressure, along with her father’s infidelity, was part of what drove her mother to madness. Jenny has long believed that her job at the Foundation was a sort of charity offering to her from the members of the board, most of whom had done business with Cain Clams for decades. What she learns about the decline and fall of the family empire enlightens, infuriates, and eventually frees her from the shame and regret associated with her father’s failure.
I highly recommend this excellent author and her work, but with one small caveat. If you’re diving into the world of Jenny Cain for the first time, don’t start with this novel. Get to know the “real” Jenny and Geof and the people of Port Frederick a little bit first. This is one series where you will want to start at the beginning and read right on through. I particularly loved the novel Bum Steer – because most of the action takes place right here in Kansas. No matter where you start, this is a great series and Nancy Pickard is an author that Kansans can be proud to call our own.
I went to the library the other night and came home with 21 books, so I should be set for a few weeks, at least. Among these were some old favorites, some recent discoveries, and one author I have never heard of before, but decided to try. Here’s a sample, in case you want to try a few:
Ellis Peters (author of the Brother Cadfael series) – the two novels I picked up are not in that series, but will be fantastic, I’m sure.
Robert Crais – I’m rapidly becoming hooked on his Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series.
John Sandford – a friend turned me on to the two interwoven series’ featuring Minnesota DPS Investigator Lucas Davenport and field investigator Virgil Flowers. This time I picked one of Virgil’s stories. He’s a laid-back, surfer-dude type guy who is also an avid outdoorsman. Like Davenport, though, Virgil has hidden depths. I fell in love with both characters and have been working my way through both the Prey series (Davenport as the star) and the ones with Flowers.
P.D. James – an old favorite, I chose one of the mysteries featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. A nobleman, a published poet and an crack investigator, Dalgliesh never disappoints.
Nancy Martin – if you haven’t read The Blackbird Sisters mysteries, you have missed out on a lot of fun! They center around three sisters who were raised in a life of wealth and privilege – until their parents decided to take the last of the family fortune and fly the country to avoid prosecution for tax evasion. Left to fend for themselves with few skills for employment, each woman finds a way to come to terms with her new lifestyle. Libby, the “earth-mother” (practitioner of erotic yoga) finds refuge in her children (wacky and somewhat scary) and her husbands (several, though not all at once!) Emma, the tough one, trains horses, goes through men as fast as she changes her undies, and occasionally works in some semi-shady businesses. The central character, Nora, lands a job as the assistant to the local newspaper gossip columnist/society editor. Her knowledge of high society, along with her inherited collection of vintage couture clothing, make her amply suited for the job. What she doesn’t bargain for are the numbers of dead bodies she will encounter along the way. Toss in the on-again-off-again relationship she has with the scion of a local crime family, and you’ve got a recipe for great reading. If you like society, fashion, sexy mobsters, and laugh-out-loud satire, you will love The Blackbird Sisters novels. (Personally I couldn’t care less about society or fashion, but I love these books anyhow.)
Nancy Atherton – I saw a section of this author’s works on the shelves and was intrigued, so I picked up her first, Aunt Dimity’s Death. I have already finished reading it – it was fairly short – and I enjoyed it very much. I can’t wait to read more of this series. The main character, Lori, is struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death while struggling through a downward cycle in her own life. Recently divorced and under-employed, she’s struggling to keep her lights on and her creditors at bay. When she receives a letter from a prestigious Boston law firm requesting that she visit, she is skeptical but decides there is nothing to lose. Upon arriving she discovers that the Aunt Dimity who inhabited all of the bedtime stories her mother told her throughout her childhood was a real person. Dimity was her mother’s bosom friend when they both served in WWII – Dimity in the VAD and Lori’s mother on General Eisenhower’s staff. Lori is given a task – she is to go and stay for a month in Dimity’s cottage in the Cotswolds and write an introduction for a published volume of the Dimity stories. She is to be assisted in this by the son and partner of the attorney. In many ways this is more of a sweet romance than a mystery, but there is plenty that is mysterious about it (a haunted cottage, a hidden secret from the past.) I zipped right through it and was very satisfied with how the story ended. I can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series.
Oh, and I picked up three cookbooks as well. I haven’t mentioned this before, but I love to cook, and I love reading cookbooks. I will try to write about a few of these as well. I’m nervous about cooking from a library book so I may have to make copies of whatever recipes I want to try. (I’m a little messy at times.) I was looking for Greek and Indian recipes. I ended up with one of Cat Cora’s cookbooks, one about Irish cooking, and one about Mediterranean Street food. I was surprised when I searched Indian Cooking in the catalog to get several pages of Native American books, but none about India. Maybe I need to check a different library.
That’s all for now, I guess. I have really appreciated all your comments and suggestions, so keep them coming. Happy reading!
My headline today is not strictly true, I am NEVER out of books. I'm just out of books I haven't already read. This weekend I finished Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. I've mentioned it in a couple of other blogs already. What a ride! I'll warn you, if you are squeamish about things like people being ordered to commit suicide (and doing it!) you won't like this book. But if you like a little court intrigue (think imperial court, not law court) mixed up with action, adventure, travel, and mystery - you will like this novel. It begins with a man who is serving a penance of sorts, in a remote outpost of the Empire, burying the bones of as many of the 40000 dead soldiers that are lying on a battlefield as he can. He comes to terms with the voices of the ghosts crying in the night, and struggles to write poetry in his hut by lamplight. His world is shattered by an unexpected gift from on high.
This novel takes you across the Chinese Empire (thinly disguised under its ancient name of Kitai, with other place and dynastic names similarly tweaked) to the far northern land of the Mongols. It is loosely based on eventus surrounding a rebellion that occurred during the Tang dynasty.
I could bore you for pages and pages with my feelings about this book, but since I like you I will spare you. Suffice it to say, it was a cracking good read! I'm off to the library to refill my bag and reload my reading list. Tally ho!
Oh, and I'm re-reading a PD James novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Good stuff, as always. More on that later.
Last night I read the novel The Watchman, by Robert Crais. His main character is Joe Pike, an ex-Marine, ex-cop and current bad-ass private investigator. In this novel, Pike is tasked with protecting a young super-rich wild woman named Larkin (think Paris Hilton) who was involved in a car accident. After the accident, attempts on her life began for reasons that are initially unclear. Pike is the strong, silent type, skilled in combat techniques and multiple martial arts. Larkin is a spoiled, attention-starved young woman who is in far, far over her head. In between the multiple attempts to kill her, we learn more about her and about the man protecting her.
This book is far different from the cozy mysteries I have blogged about thus far. There is plenty of action and a lot of violence. There are also an intriguing plot and very well-developed characters. The current action is woven together with flashbacks to both his time as a boy with an abusive father and as a fresh young “boot” right out of the police academy, riding with his training officer. These serve to flesh out the character that is Joe Pike and also to build suspense. The person who recommended Pike for the Larkin assignment is his old mentor, Bud Flynn, who was his training officer when he began as a police officer. Information is being leaked to the bad guys, and Pike struggles with the idea that the leak could be his old friend, the father-figure he never had. I won’t tell you how that turns out, because I hate spoilers. But it adds a frisson of emotional tension that is very effective in moving the story forward.
Pike is assisted in his endeavors by his partner, Elvis Cole. I think some of Crais’ other novels feature Cole as the main character, and I will definitely be looking for those. Elvis is a smart, smart-mouthed, very savvy investigator. He is the brains to Pike’s brawn – not that Pike is an intellectual slouch, by any means. He brings a warmer humanity to this novel in the face of Pike’s close-mouthed determination.
It was a pleasure to see the character of Larkin growing through the course of this novel. In the beginning she is little more than a whining brat. In her defense, she is a terrified whining brat, whose one attempt in life to do something to benefit someone else has blown up in her face. By the end she has come to realize many things about herself, her relationship with her father, and her place in the world. She has also fallen head over heels for Joe Pike. The worst part of this book was when I got into the middle of an action scene and realized that 30 pages of the book were MISSING from my copy! I groaned and considered putting it aside until I could go to the library and get a complete copy. It is a testament to the power of this book that I opted to figure out the missing pages later, so I could get to the end.
Robert Crais is now at the top of my must-read list. I have a feeling I will be seeing a lot more of those two tough guys, Joe Pike and Elvis Cole.
Just finished another Susan Wittig Albert novel titled Wormwood. It's a China Bayles mystery. This time the intrepid Ms. Bayles is visiting a Shaker village in Kentucky with her friend. The friend suspects that all is not right in the Village - suspicious activities have been occurring and all is not well with the finances. The village is a tourist attraction featuring reenactors and is funded by a foundation.
Albert uses a great technique in this book. The chapters have events told from China's point of view interspersed with journal entries and letters from the year 1912, when events were unfolding in the Village that would eventually lead to its dissolution and demise. As a student of history, I found these journals fascinating! The author successfully interweaves TWO mysteries - the one happening in the present day and the one that happened nearly a century ago. Both are solved by China and her friends.
I picked this book up at about 9ish and finished it just after midnight last night. If you ever see me walking around with dark circles under my eyes, I've probably been up later than I should have - reading!
In other news, I made more progress on Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it to say, the plot thickens! Female ninjas (or some ninja-type warrior), murdered visitors, and flashbacks to encounters with crazed, cannibalistic nomads from the north! This just keeps getting better and better...
The good (or bad) news is, I'm out of books! By which I mean I only have the two I'm working on right now. Time to head back to the library!
I read a LOT. Books are like crack to me - I can't go a day without my fix. I read on my breaks and lunch hour at work every day. I read in the bathroom at times - even in the bathTUB at times. I have been known to walk down the sidewalk with a book in my hands. Every day at work someone gives me a hard time about walking and reading. This past week I read three books in their entirety, as well as making progress on a fourth that I started some time back. All of this is a prelude to why I'm starting this blog. Folks keep telling me that I should blog about the books I read. So, here goes. I will write some about what I've read this week, and in later blogs I will cover some favorites from the past.
For the most part I read mysteries - both "cozies" and police procedural types. But sometimes I delve into other genres. This past week I revisited a favorite mystery author to fill in some of her series that I had missed, but also read a nature book and part of an adventure novel set in China. So, here goes. Last week's reading:
One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, by Sam Keith from the journals of Richard Proenneke.
I became interested in this book after seeing the documentary "Alone in the Wilderness" on PBS. It follows Dick Pronneke as he embarks upon his life's dream - to build a cabin and live far away from civilization, alone, in Alaska. The film is mesmerizing. Proenneke was an unusual combination of master craftsman, wildlife photographer, poet, and adventurer. His writings are used verbatim in much of the narration of the film. (I got a copy at the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library.) Watching the footage that he shot of himself working to build his cabin using nothing but hand tools and incredible craftsmanship never gets old. But there was more I wanted to know, and the book provided that knowledge.
The book is simply Pronneke's journal of his first year, plus added commentary and photographs. I read it in one day - breaks, lunch, and an hour or so in the evening. Some of the most interesting stories didn't make it into the film. For example, the story of the day when a bear came up the front path to Dick's cabin, tried climbing on the roof and scared him half to death. This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in nature, craftsmanship, adventure, etc. I highly recommend both it and the film. We have watched it over and over, and I would read the book again also.
Chile Death, by Susan Wittig Albert This is one of the fabulous series featuring China Bayles, a former high-powered defense attorney who gave up her legal career to open an herb shop in the small (fictional) town of Pecan Springs, Texas. I am a small-town girl myself, and really appreciate the characters that Albert has used to populate Pecan Springs. This book centers around the annual Chili Cookoff. In addition to a great mystery plot with plenty of action and twists and turns, the author provides history, insights and recipes about chiles (the peppers) and chili (the five-alarm kind.) I don't like spicy food, but I love this author's writing style. The stories are smart, well-plotted and very engaging. Once I start one, I can never put it down until it's done.
Holly Blues, by Susan Wittig Albert Another fantastic story in the China Bayles series. This one is set at Christmas, and holly references are liberally sprinkled throughout. The story begins when China's husband Mike's ex-wife gets off the bus in Pecan Springs, running from some BIG trouble. Perhaps because she is feeling the Holiday spirit, China agrees to let the woman stay in their home. Everything goes downhill from there. Three murders (one that occurred twenty years before) and a mysterious man who stalks her houseguest leave China worried and perplexed. Luckily China has help from both her friend Ruby and her husband Mike. Another winner in a series that has yet to disappoint.
Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay This story intrigued me because of my interest in Chinese culture and its interesting premise. I took a Chinese history course in college and have been fascinated ever since. This novel begins with a young man who agrees to go and live near a battlefield where 40,000 men were killed a couple of years before, to bury the bones of the dead. He does this as a sort of homage/penance for his father, who had died a couple of years after the battle. The battlefield itself is a kind of no-man's land between two nations. Peace has been achieved through a marriage between the two royal families. Each side brings supplies to the young man in payment for his work. I am not too far along yet, so will write more about this one later. But it is extremely interesting so far.
I know this happens to families everywhere, every day. Most days I don’t think about it. In fact as the mom of teenage girls, I try hard not to think about it. But today I can’t seem to think about anything else, because it has happened in our small community. Yesterday, a young man my daughter had been in school with for years decided to end his own life. He was fifteen years old. The National Institutes of Mental Health state that suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. It further states that nearly five times as many males in this age group kill themselves, than females in the same age range. Even more shocking to me was this statistic: for every successful suicide attempt, there are 11 failed attempts. (Source: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.shtml)
While my heart aches for this poor lost boy and his family, my mind struggles to wrap itself around this question: What could possibly have been so wrong in this child’s life that he decided to throw everything away? He was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD! If things were so bad, how is it that no one knew how much he was hurting? If they knew, why didn’t they get help for him? I guess what my brain keeps screaming is why did this happen? The more I learn, the more the answer becomes apparent.
My 14 year old daughter said to me last night “Mom, I feel bad. The last time I talked to him I was kind of a jerk.” She told me that this boy was often rude to her, and that he wasn’t her friend. They had been on a sports team together, so she knew him somewhat. But he was a year older, and ran with a different crowd. Another person I know used to be his babysitter. She said he was teased and tormented for his whole life, because he was different. He had some physical differences and I know that his family background was a little rough. She told me that he was a sweet boy and that he was always trying to be funny, but he wasn’t very good at it. All these little pieces. Pieces of the life of a boy I never knew, and now won’t get the chance to know.
I realize that kids can be cruel. I was a fat kid and a teacher’s kid – a double whammy – and my family moved a lot, so I was often the new kid, as well. I was teased, tormented and picked on, called names, etc. Because I had good family support, I got through it mostly unscathed. There were many times I cried and felt miserable. But I knew that my family loved me, and that was enough to get me through it. I sought escape in my books, and the refuge that was home. But that was years ago, and I know that times have changed.
I listened to an NPR interview just last night with an author who researched and wrote a book about bullying among girls. One thing that stuck out for me was that because of today’s technology, there is no escape. The schoolyard bullying I endured as a child is now carried on 24x7, through social media, cell phones, etc. Kids who are bullied cannot get away from it. On one hand, they are ostracized if they don’t have an online presence. On the other, that very presence allows people to continue to torment them while simultaneously giving others an easy venue to join in. The anonymity and physical distance the internet provides means people feel free to say things they would never say in person. The author told of a girl who killed herself because of the hundreds of vicious comments posted to her Facebook page after another girl accused her of trying to steal her boyfriend. The accusation was false, but the vitriol kept coming. For that poor child, it seemed there was nothing left to live for, that the torment would never end. I wonder how many kids posted on her page without thinking, just because felt better to be the tormentor than the tormented for a change?
It’s easy to blame parents, society, the internet, the culture, for this epidemic among our youth. The fact is we all carry some of the burden. It is easy to look at a kid – especially a teen boy – and think “That kid is nothing but trouble.” We all see them walking the mall. Some may be dressed all in black with band t-shirts, eyeliner and chains. Others may be sagging their pants and wearing gang colors, scowling and trying to look tough. They may look like jocks or nerds or just average kids. The truth is, they are just kids, and we can’t know what they are feeling on the inside. They could be in deep pain, with no way to express it or work it through. They could be deeply lonely and feel that no one in the world cares what happens to them. They look like they feel invincible, but in reality they feel invisible. We all remember that adolescence sucks, but I think as adults we forget how much it can hurt. Add to this the fact that teens are not mentally capable of reasoning into the future like adults can, and you have a recipe for disaster. For them, the now often is the only reality they can understand, and it can be excruciating.
So what can we do? I’ve been asking myself this question all night and all morning. I’ve come to one conclusion. I can’t do everything, but I can do SOMETHING. So the next time I see one of those kids at the mall, or at the school, or in the grocery store, I’m going to make it a point to look at him or her and smile. Acknowledge their presence on the planet. Maybe say hello. Let them know in that small way that I see them, and that I value them as people. When I see or hear bullying behavior, online or in person, I will try to call people on it in a loving way. I work with teen girls through Scouting, and we have spent a lot of time talking about self -image issues. I am going to keep beating that drum, but I am also going to talk to them about how they treat others. I will try harder to choose my own words carefully, and monitor my actions and attitudes. I will ask God to help me really see kids that are hurting, and do what I can to help. I will pray, every day, for our children and teens. It’s not much, but it’s something. If we all do something, maybe we can help to turn this tide of despair and suffering. Because a single kind word or action may be all that it takes to avert another tragedy.