Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Libraries Transform—Celebrate National Library Week, April 9-15, 2017

This week, April 9-15, 2017, is National Library Week. It’s a time to celebrate libraries and library workers and to promote library use and support. According to the American Library Association website, the theme for National Library Week this year is “Libraries Transform.”

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for public libraries. I remember many trips to the library in my hometown when I was a child. When I visited my grandmother in the summer, she took me to the library near her house so I could check out a stack of books to keep from being bored between trips to the beach.

Later, I was the “library mom” for my kids when they were each in first grade—I checked books out of the library to take to their classrooms every few weeks. And I enjoy libraries now as places to meet with other writers, to hang out in between appointments when going home is inconvenient, and to write when there are distractions at home.

As for being “transformed” by libraries, I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the reader—and therefore the writer—that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. Over the years, I’ve used the books I’ve checked out of libraries to learn and to escape. Books let me experience the world as it really is, as the ideal it should be, and as the fantasy I sometimes wish it were. Most evenings, I choose to read instead of watching television—even when I can stream programs I like. There’s something about using my imagination as I read that visual experiences like television and movies can’t duplicate.

The library I use most frequently now is the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL).  It has many branches throughout the Missouri side of the Kansas City region. I also have library cards with the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and with the Johnson County (Kansas) Library, because I’m in those libraries often enough that I might want to check books out there.

All three are excellent library systems. I live midway between two MCPL branches, and the system has many other branches throughout the part of Kansas City in which I live. I’m at some branch almost every week. And I check out most of my ebooks through the MCPL Overdrive system.

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

The KCPL system has a beautiful branch in downtown Kansas City which offers excellent literary and historical programs for readers, and it also boasts an art gallery with changing exhibits, often related to Kansas City history. Another KCPL branch near the Plaza shopping that is a great place to hang out. Both branches have nice coffee bars also.

And I have regular meetings in the newly renovated meeting rooms at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. If it had a coffee bar, I might even be tempted to move to Kansas.

All three libraries, as well as the Olathe (Kansas) Public Library, have recently joined their catalogs. So now I can link my three library cards and search on one site to find books anywhere. I still have to check them out of the library where the book is located, but the combined catalog makes my searches much easier.

I’m also pleased to announce that the Mid-Continent Public Library has acquired my two novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. The Olathe Public Library already had a copy of each book, so now they are available on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. I’m most pleased when readers buy my books, but I’m thrilled when people read them—however they find a copy.

So, those of you in the Kansas City area who have not yet read my books, now you have no excuse! (Unless all copies of the novels are all on hold at the library.)

How have libraries transformed you?

Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

How Do You Choose What To Read?

RLKC profile picI mentioned in a recent post that I’m a part of Read Local Kansas City. I am also a part of another “read local” organization—Hometown Reads, which lists books by local authors in many cities across the U.S. Go check out this site and see what books have been written by your hometown authors—you might find a gem.

Hometown Reads wants to learn more about people’s reading habits, and they have a few questions for readers. These questions include:

  1. When do you read books?
  2. How do you choose the books you want to read?
  3. Do you read print books or ebooks?

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’ve been a life-long reader. While there were periods in my life when I didn’t read for pleasure, it has been my first source for entertainment since I was four or five years old, and even earlier when my parents read to me.

When do I read? Any time I can. As a child, I read in the afternoons during the school year when my homework was done. And I read all summer long, devouring six to ten books a week.

During the years I was in college, law school, and employed full-time, I had little time for reading. But it was my guilty pleasure to curl up with a book on an occasional weekend afternoon, though I had work to do, kids to feed, and laundry to fold. On weekends when my husband was away on Naval Reserve training, I could get through a book or two, and I often did.

Now that I’m retired, reading is no longer a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure. Though at times I feel guilty, because I have a blog post to write or a critique partner’s chapter to edit or groceries to buy. Daily life continues to intrude on time I’d like to spend reading. Or writing.

How do I choose what to read? I’ll read whatever books come into my hands. I frequently receive books as gifts. Some family members give me books they think I’ll like. Others give me books they think would be “good for me.” One nephew works in an independent bookstore, and he finds unusual books that suit my interests, like this year’s gift, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, which is awaiting my attention.

I read literary bestsellers. I read books that friends recommend (which have led to some very good finds, like Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, and The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore). I read books for my book club, and I read books that other book clubs are reading. I read books that our local library selects for community-wide “Big Reads.”

I read them all, or put them in a stack “to be read.” Most of the books in my stack I eventually read. Others I don’t, which makes me sad.

When I’m browsing, whether in a bookstore or library or online, I often look for books by authors I love. Those tend to be genre books in series, whether they be thrillers or mysteries or romances. But any book with an intriguing cover, or one I’ve read a review of, might get picked off the shelf and find its way into my stack.

The problem isn’t finding books to read, it’s making the choice between books.

Print or ebooks? I’ve addressed this question in earlier posts. I’ll read both, but I’ve switched largely to ebooks, except for books I’m given, books I can’t find in ebook format, and occasional forays to the library. The reason? My budget and my bulging purse. I can carry a tablet with Kindle, Nook and Overdrive apps loaded on it, each giving me access to dozens of books, or I can carry a single paperback, which gives me no choice of reading material when I’m stuck waiting in line or for an appointment. The Overdrive books from the libraries I belong to are all free, as are many Kindle and Nook books. Otherwise, my reading habit would break the bank.

And I can read on my tablet in the dark. That’s my new guilty pleasure. Waking in the middle of the night gives me the opportunity to read a chapter or two before I fall asleep again. I put on the blue light filter and read without bothering my husband.

What about you? What’s your answer to the questions posed above?

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On Rocking Horses, Reading About Horses, and Real Horses

Xmas 56 (cropped)I’ve posted about my first Christmas before. Someone in the family—my father or grandfather—was good enough to take a picture of all the presents I received from Santa Claus before I was awake to see them. (Not that, at eight months, I could have done too much damage to them.)

Many of those first Christmas presents remained in our family a long time. My first doll, mentioned in an earlier post, that my mother kept, and that I found after my parents died. The rug in the shape of a cat that I took to kindergarten.

rocking-horseAnd my first rocking horse.

Actually, I think this was the only rocking horse that I or any of my siblings ever had. I used to love visiting friends who had the big horses on springs that really bounced the rider around like a bucking bronco. But all we had was this sedate little fellow that moved gently back and forth on an arced wooden base when propelled by the rider’s weight.

Like many preteen girls, I went through a stage of fascination with horses when I was about ten. I read Misty of Chincoteague and all the sequels by Marguerite Henry. I read The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and a couple of those sequels. And I read My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara and its two sequels.

But I rarely encountered an actual horse in my life. Only once or twice did we ever vacation in a place where we could take trail rides. My first substantial time spent on horseback was when my husband and I took our kids to a dude ranch in Wyoming in 1990. After a week on horseback, I yearned for the gentle swaying and narrow girth of my toddler-sized rocking horse.

So I was thrilled a few years ago to see the old nag when I visited my youngest brother around Christmas time. Somehow, his family ended up with my little pony. His daughters are too big for it now, but I imagine he still has it. Maybe they even bring it out of storage to put under the Christmas tree.

What old relics from your childhood have you found?

On Heffalumps, Hookers, and Humor

Here’s a (sort of) Christmas story I’ve never posted before. I wrote it for a writers’ group holiday party a few years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

On Heffalumps, Hookers, and Humor

mMugZTSQ4XYjmDRF06mOI1g PoohThe winter when I was four, I wasn’t supposed to know how to read, but I did. When Mommy read me stories and had to stop in the middle, I read ahead. Sometimes I forgot to turn the page back and lost our place.

One day in December, just before Christmas, I sat on the floor playing by Daddy’s bookcase. Daddy was getting a P-H-D. His books were boring. They had lots of numbers and squiggly lines that weren’t letters, and were called “Metal-lurgy” and “Ther-mo-dy-nam-ics.”

That day I saw a new book on Daddy’s shelf called Winnie the Pooh.

My grandma’s name was “Winnie.” Her real name was “Winifred Hooker,” but everyone —even Daddy—called her “Nanny Winnie.” Except for Mommy—my mommy called Nanny Winnie “Mother.”

Mommy often told her friends she used to be a “Hooker.” The grown-ups always laughed at that, but I didn’t know why. “Hooker” had been Mommy’s name until she married Daddy, so I didn’t see why that name was funny.

Sometimes Nanny Winnie called herself “Mrs. Claus.” She wrote on all her Christmas presents “from Santa and Mrs. Claus.” I could tell it was Nanny’s writing, because it was very messy. That’s how I knew the presents weren’t really from Santa—they were just from Nanny Winnie. (Besides, Santa didn’t wrap his presents.)

Now I’d found a book about “Winnie.” And about “Pooh,” which made me giggle.

I pulled the book off the shelf and opened it. It had pictures. But they weren’t boring pictures like in Daddy’s books. These pictures were of a bear, and a boy, and other animals. This book looked like one of my books.

I took the book to Mommy. “See what Daddy has,” I said. “Is it for me?”

She didn’t want to tell me, but finally she said, “Yes, it’s one of your Christmas presents. Since you found it, you can have it now.” Even though it wasn’t Christmas yet.

Daddy started reading it to me that night. Mommy had read the book when she was little, but Daddy never had.

Winnie the Pooh wasn’t like my Nanny Winnie at all. He was a boy, not a girl. And he was a bear. And he had a friend named Piglet.

And he was dumb. The book even said Pooh was a “bear of little brain.”

In one story, Pooh went round and round a clump of bushes in the snow with Piglet. They were tracking heffalumps. Every time they went around the bushes, more tracks appeared. Daddy laughed so hard he couldn’t read.

Why did Daddy think the story was funny? I didn’t think it was funny—I thought it was stupid. The pictures showed Pooh and Piglet following their own footprints in the snow. There weren’t any heffalumps. Heffalumps was a made-up word.

I decided Winnie the Pooh was a silly book. I couldn’t understand why my very smart Daddy thought it was funny.

It’s taken me sixty years’ experience with some people of little brain to understand why Daddy laughed.

And why Nanny Winnie signed her presents “from Santa and Mrs. Claus.” Because Christmas is a time when everyone is Santa.

This story raises lots of questions: When have you found a present that was hidden? Or when have you played Santa for someone else? And when have you had to deal with people of llittle brain? 

Haunting Book: The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

summer-before-the-war-coverMy last review of a haunting book for 2016 is of The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. Ms. Simonson is the author of one of my favorite books of the last decade, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is good, but it doesn’t rise to the same level of excellence as Major Pettigrew, and most reviewers seem to agree with me.

Still, The Summer Before the War haunts me in its description of World War I on the home front and in the trenches. It starts, as one would expect, in the summer of 1914, before war breaks out. In the beginning, it is the portrait of a small English village and the characters that inhabit it.

The character at the heart of the novel is Beatrice Nash, who seeks the position of Latin instructor at the local school. Beatrice is penniless and must succeed as a teacher, no matter how much she would prefer to be a writer. Beatrice would be the first female Latin instructor, and the town’s movers and shakers might not be ready for such a development. The school has other female teachers, but apparently Latin is a masculine subject, at least in 1914. And besides, Beatrice is too pretty to teach, some in the town believe. But Agatha Kent, one of the grande dames of the village, has risked her reputation to get Beatrice the appointment.

Despite its title, The Summer Before the War continues long after the summer of 1914. In fact, it continues throughout the war years. The young men go off to battle, and the women and old men of the village are left behind. The book depicts the tragedy of war—on soldiers, on those who remain at home, and on the displaced (as the town takes in Belgian refugees). These themes are universal, but the novel is quintessentially English and very much grounded in Edwardian times.

SPOILER ALERT — DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS

I think the reason this book didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Major Pettigrew is that the characters were not as unique nor as charming as those in Ms. Simonson’s first book. In particular, the cultural diversity of Major Pettigrew made that novel stand out for me—the British Army major’s reluctant romance with his Indian neighbor and the quirky intrafamily disputes in both the English and the Indian families hooked me.

By contrast, the characters in The Summer Before the War seemed more generic. Any novel about World War I would contain the same archetypes—the grande dames of the village, the young men who reluctantly abandon their dreams to fight, the arguments between generations, the social strata of Edwardian England (like in Downton Abbey), and the betrayals in the village and on the battlefields. Even the plight of the gypsies in England has been covered in earlier books. For me, only the Belgian refugee characters took the book into unusual aspects of the war’s impact at home.

I did love the small-town intrigue between Agatha Kent and her nemesis Bettina Fothergill. Agatha has an ally in Lady Emily Wheaton, and the scheming among these three older women is delightful, as they strive to advance their chosen candidate for Latin instructor, either Beatrice or a doltish young man named Mr. Poot. The diplomacy that Agatha’s husband must exercise in his career at the Foreign Office is child’s play compared to the village politics plotted by these women.

I also liked the family conflicts between Agatha and her husband and their two nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, both of whom are pursuing their personal goals in directions that their uncle in the Foreign Service might not like. Hugh is studying to be a doctor, Daniel wants to start a poetry journal. Neither man anticipates the impact the war will have on his life.

A romance ensues between Beatrice and Hugh, despite many interruptions. I won’t tell you how it turns out, but you can predict that war interferes. And because it is a war novel, sympathetic characters die, but I won’t tell you which ones. The war brings out the best and the worse in the characters, as war does in most novels.

The Summer Before the War is a slow-paced novel, resembling the life in the small town it depicts. Many reviewers have commented that the novel should have had a stringent professional edit to take out some of its 500 pages. It was definitely longer than Major Pettigrew, which felt to me like a much more focused book. Still, for a grand overview of the impact of World War I on a small town in England, you can do far worse than to read The Summer Before the War. I can see The Summer Before the War being made into a BBC Masterpiece series, but I would rather see Major Pettigrew.

What novel have you read that you wish would become a Masterpiece series?