“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”
This is a dear little book that has been making the rounds among my friends and acquaintances of a certain vintage. Many of us have begun downsizing, distributing, and divesting. My husband and I did so when we moved to a smaller house three years ago. Margareta Magnusson gives gentle tips for making the process easier and more pleasant. Her reasons are simple.
“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”
“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”
She recommends not starting with photographs or papers. Start with furniture and clothing. And invest in a shredder.
“In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with large items in your home and finish with the small.”
“Now that I am the oldest person in my family, if I don’t know the names of the people in the photos, nobody else in the family is likely to. More work for the shredder.”
The best bit of advice is to ask yourself, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes into the hungry shredder, always waiting for paper to chew.”
This is not a sad book. Much of what Magnusson suggests reminds me of the common sense and generosity my family–including my half-Swedish mother–practiced. Share what you have with those who need it. Let your old things start new lives and form new memories with a new family. It is a gentle, sometimes humorous reminder that someone will have to deal with all our stuff one day. If we love them, we should make it as easy as possible. Recommend.
First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.
In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.
Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.
“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”
“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”
Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?
We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.
“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”
These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.
During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.
“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”
In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.
Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”
Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.
Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.
“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”
Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.
My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged throughRon Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.
“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”
The Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”
“Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”
My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.
“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”
“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”
The battles continued
Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.
“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”
“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”
And then there were the personal battles
A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”
“For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”
Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed. For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.
“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.
Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.
“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”
This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.
“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”
Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article inThe New Yorker.So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.
Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!
“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”
Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.
Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth.
The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.
“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”
“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”
Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.
“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”
Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.
Those were the “good old days.”
What difference did reliable birth control make?
“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”
Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.
But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.
Why would anyone want to share what crazy feels like? Because by sharing her own struggles with mental illness Jenny has saved countless others who thought they were alone. Imagine how reassuring it is to read about pain that mirrors your own. “You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Jenny has chosen to be Furiously Happy.
“We all get our share of tragedy or insanity or drama, but what we do with that horror is what makes all the difference.”
“I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.”
“’No one ever died from being sad.’ Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, ‘How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.’ But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead.”
“I remind myself that depression lies and that I can’t trust my own critical thinking when I’m sick.”
“I wish someone had told me this simple confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way, you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect.”
Jenny mentions Christine Miserandino’s useful “Spoon Theory” as a way of explaining that dealing with chronic pain or illness—even though a person might not look sick—limits what a person can do. Each of us has only so many metaphorical spoons to spend on a given day. Dealing with pain or anxiety uses up a lot of your spoons. If you are ill you may not have enough spoons for a PTA meeting or even getting out of bed. You try to save your spoons for what has to get done. You have to prioritize.
For those of us lucky enough not be be seeing crazy from the inside, this book helps us be a bit more compassionate to those who who are. And if you are on the inside, know this: you are not alone. Recommend.
“Jenny Lawson is a very strange girl who has friends in spite of herself. She is perpetually one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”
When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a small herd of traumatized elephants onto his private game reserve at Thula Thula in Zululand, his experience and common sense told him to refuse. After all, a rogue elephant is a fearsome and dangerous creature. But Anthony possessed a gift that few of us have, a sort of sixth sense about what these distressed and distrustful animals needed and quickly went to work preparing to take them in.
Anthony’s goal was not to tame these rogue elephants. He wanted them to once again be wild and free, to live as they were intended. Not to trust humans—certainly not. They’d been betrayed by hunters and poachers—but to trust him. Only him.
He started slowly, very slowly, by merely observing them from a distance.
“Previously traumatized wild elephants appeared to regain a degree of faith in new humans once the matriarch has established trust with just one new human. But it must be the matriarch.”
He cites evidence of the elephants’ profound intelligence. Early on they outsmarted the electrified fence by testing it and then downing trees to disable it. They also showed an uncanny ability to communicate over long distances–even with Anthony himself–by sensing when he would arrive home from a trip to greet him.
“Elephants transmit infra-sound vibrations through unique stomach rumblings that can be received over vast distances. These ultra-low frequencies, which cannot be detected by human ear, oscillate at similar wavelengths to those transmitted by whales; vibrations that some believe quaver across the globe.
Evolution is ruthless; anything not essential to survival withers on the gene-pool vine. Thus, it is only reasonable to postulate that elephants are using these advanced long-distance frequencies for a specific purpose—to communicate coherently, one to another and herd to herd.”
Anthony’s patience and passion saved these elephants from certain death and taught him lessons that would benefit us all.
“They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.”
“From Nana, the glorious matriarch, I learned how much family means. I learned just how much wise leadership, selfless discipline and tough unconditional love is at the core of the family unit. I learned how important one’s own flesh and blood actually is when the dice are loaded against you. [and]…that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.
This book will give you not only a profound appreciation for elephants, but also for how all living things are connected in ways we’ve never thought of. Recommend.
I told myself I wouldn’t go back to the dark and desperate world of WWII Europe’s deprivations. But it’s been awhile, and a friend recommendedThe Alice Network.Besides, this story takes place during WWI and just after WWII. I took the risk and was rewarded.
Quinn’s writing is intimate and compelling, alternating between the points of view of the two main characters. Eve is a young, intelligent British woman with a profound stammer who in 1915 longs to do something in the Britain’s war with Germany. She is thwarted by both her gender and disability. Charlie is a young, intelligent American woman of privilege in 1947 who finds herself pregnant and on her way to Switzerland for an appointment to relieve her of her “little problem.” Their stories connect when Charlie seeks Eve’s help in locating a beloved French cousin who went missing in France during WWII. Both Charlie and the reader need to know why Eve, now a cranky, damaged old drunk, refuses.
Thus begins the tale of Eve’s recruitment and service as part of a web female spies in France, “les fleurs du mal.” The flowers of evil.
“There are two kinds of flowers when it comes to women… The kind that is safe in a beautiful vase, or the kind that survive in any conditions…even in evil. Lili was the latter. Which are you?”
Lili was the head of this network. As such it was her “… job was to be anyone, to shift with a few tricks of posture or grammar from one persona to another, whether seamstress or laundress or cheese seller. And if Lili’s job was to be anyone, Eve’s was to be no one, to be unobserved and unnoticed at all times.” Eve’s assignment was to be a waitress and report on the conversations of the German officers who dined at the restaurant owned by the cruel collaborator, Rene’ Bordelon.
“Why did it matter if something scared you, when it simply had to be done anyway?”
As I read the author’s notes at the end of the book, I discovered that many of the vividly portrayed supporting characters, including the colorful Lili, and many of the incidents described were taken directly from true accounts of the time. This is why I read and enjoy historical fiction. I learn about lives and times outside of my own. They make me quesiton myself. In the same circumstances would I have been able to do what they did? This story of war is bloody and brutal. The bravery of both those who fought in the resistance deserve to be remembered. These were no shrinking violets.
It seemsAmy Tanhas been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. InWhere the Past Beginsthough, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.
Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.
The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should. That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even. Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.
Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.
On memory and the amygdala:
“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”
“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”
“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”
On the work of writing:
“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”
“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”
“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”
On the fickleness of acclaim:
“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”
“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”
On her own fiction-writing mind:
“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”
“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”
Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.
Three cheers for Carson City, Nevada author,Teri Caseon her debut novel! I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from a friend.
Teri gets deep and personal in this family drama set in a trailer park very similar to the one in which she and her siblings were raised. The voices of the mother, father, sister, and brother are both vibrant and heartbreaking. Each character demonstrates the damage that poverty, abuse, and addiction can wreak on human beings. To protect themselves, they inflict further damage by keeping secrets from one another. While readers may not like the characters, they will find it hard not to empathize.
“Do you ever think we all would just be happier if everyone worked together and supported each other? I feel like my parents…and my older siblings only take care of themselves. It’s like my family doesn’t think there is enough of a good thing to go around, so they all scrap for the best of the worst, climb over each other, fight over rations, and then boom…they vanish when someone needs them. And that leaves me no better than them and looking out for myself…”
The author successfully paints each character into a corner, where neither they nor the reader can see any way out. Could these characters ever find redemption? Each of them will need to find resilience and the fierce drive of a tiger if they are to survive much less succeed.
More importantly, I believeTiger Drivereinforces one of the reasons I read–to experience lives outside my own. The characters’ desperate lives and blistering responses to the chaos swirling around them are so foreign to my own life, that I was at first taken aback. Their struggles caused me to reflect on the assumptions and judgments I may have made when I encountered troubled children and families not only in my teaching career, but also in my life. I hope I have at least been kind. As a human being, kindness and compassion should be my first response. My prime directive. It costs us nothing to “make room for hope, faith, and opportunity” in our hearts. Having one person believe in us can make all the difference.
Thanks for a compelling read and the lesson, Teri.