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8 Aug
2018
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Book Review: “The Search for My Abandoned Grandmother” by Mary Ames Mitchell

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Search for My Abandoned GrandmotherMary Ames Mitchell describes in detail her search for her English grandmother’s grave or burial site. The author’s mother, Betty May, last saw her mother, Eileen Maude, when she was seven in 1932 as she boarded a train in London with her brother to spend the summer holidays with her father in France. Betty May’s parents had divorced and the partings had become customary but this last time Eileen Maude acted differently and said goodbye with tears in her  eyes. Shortly after this parting she became sick and died. Betty May grew old in the United states, not knowing what happened or where she was buried.

Mitchell, interested in genealogy, decided to travel to England to search for her grandmother’s grave, and meet or connect with remaining relatives from her grandmother’s extended family who might help her search. She prepared for her first trip by contacting English cemeteries, reviewing scrapbooks, photo albums, talking to her mother’s brother and a step sister, conducting an internet search on the British National Archives site, visiting the local Family History Center, and contacting her English relatives. What she calls her “grandmother-search project” ultimately included three trips to England and two-trips to Scotland to visit cemeteries, churches and official record sites. She visited Betty May’s first cousins, her own second cousins, second cousins-once-removed and step cousins.

In addition to the detailed search for Eileen Maude, Mitchell very smoothly intersperses the biographical details of her grandfather’s extraordinary life and what she knows of her grandmother and their marriage. Although the details of her search are occasionally tedious, I found the story compelling. Like the author I was disappointed when she hit a “brick wall” and elated when she discovered additional clues. I recommend this book if you are interested in genealogy and family history as I am.

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17 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers” by Sara Zeff Geber

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review by Bev Scott, bevscott.comThis book is introduced by the gerontologist Harry “Rick” Moody, who reminds us all that we are all “solo agers” if we live long enough.  He says, “Successful Solo Agers have learned how to age alone and they have lessons we all need to learn.”

Sara Zeff Geber provides the guide book for that learning.  She covers the preparation needed to enjoy the second half of life, deciding how and where to live and ensuring care in one’s oldest age.  The information she covers is essential for aging as singles, married couples with or without children.  It is a rich resource and one all of us will use as reference as we ambivalently approach the tasks of preparing and making decisions for retirement.  Utilizing the worksheets and thoughtfully answering the questions can help us discover what will give us joy and fulfillment as well as care, comfort and financial security.

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9 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser, book review by Bev Scott Author

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Reading and preparing this summary and review of Prairie Fires has been a long-term endeavor. Caroline Fraser has done a brilliant work describing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the historical context of the time. She won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Award. She begins the historical detail before Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and describes the nine decades of Wilder’s life. Wilder died in 1957 but Fraser also gives us a postscript, describing the controversies which surrounded her estate. Fraser draws on letters, diaries, land and financial records filling in gaps in Wilder’s biography. As an amateur historian especially interested in American history, I was engrossed with the setting and the detail Fraser provided; and it took time for me to absorb it all.

Laura Ingalls was born after the US Army had devastated the Dakota Indians. The Homestead Act gave white settlers official permission to take the land in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Dakota Territory once occupied by Native Americans. She and her family lived through the natural disasters of drought, extreme heat, locust swarms and blizzards. Her father was unable to make a living for his family as a farmer. The family lost everything and literally skipped out of town to escape debts. Often overwhelmed with responsibilities and anxiety, Laura worked to help support her family, running errands, serving as a companion and seamstress, turning all her earnings over to her parents. At fifteen, she passed the exam to become a teacher of small children at a little school a few miles from home.

Almanzo Wilder came each weekend to pick her up in his wagon. She agreed to marry him in 1885 when she was 17. Although their first year of marriage was a magical one, Laura worried about money and the debt that Almanzo had accumulated to provide her a handsome house. In 1886 a baby girl, Rose was born adding another worry. Fraser points out that the economics were impossible. After expenses and setting aside seed for the next year, there was a little more than $40 to live on for another year. Even imagining that living on $40 was possible, disasters seem to stalk the Wilders: drought, cyclones, failing crops, fire, diphtheria, Almanzo’s crippling stroke. The title of the book, Prairie Fires refers to one of the disasters they confronted. They ultimately decided to leave.

Ingalls Family photograph

The Ingalls Family

Chicago and North Western Railway Company poster c 1870 encouraging immigrants to move to Dakota using their railroad

When they finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, Laura would “step by cautious step, sieze control of their circumstances” proving herself adept to find ingenious ways to earn income, live frugally and manage their meager assets.  Fraser paints a picture of the grit and determination of Wilder’s struggle to survive. This was the beginning of their journey back from the brink of ruin. As Fraser describes, Laura Wilder’s life was a “titanic struggle to tame yet another wilderness alone with her crippled husband and a seven-year-old.” Because he was disabled by his stroke, Almanzo could not work a full day on the farm. They moved into town and he began a business making deliveries and hauling passengers. Laura worked keeping books for the oil company.

When her father died, Laura wrote an essay about her earliest memories of him. She described his greatest gift was his contentment with what he had. It was a powerful essay, remembering all of the songs he played, passionately describing everything about him. It was a beginning of her writing.

Her daughter, Rose, also began writing. At twenty-two after following a beau to San Francisco in 1908, she began writing newspaper stories. She shed her sense of inferiority and feelings of being unwanted and adopted a “belief in her superiority, a self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it.” She endeavored for the rest of Laura Wilder’s life to be her writing instructor and guide. The former strict matriarch, acknowledging her own insecurity, took her daughter’s hand and launched into a new career. This new relationship between mother and daughter lasted for the next forty years. (For a deeper look into Rose and Laura as collaborators, see article in The New Yorker, “Wilder Women.”)

By 1916 Wilder was a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. She developed her voice and themes through her involvement and activism as a clubwoman, member of a Masonic organization, farm activist, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association as well as a prolific columnist for the Ruralist. Wilder’s first national magazine article came through her daughter’s connections and marked their first collaborative clash. Using her former husband name, Rose Lane had a burgeoning career as a celebrity biographer by 1917. She was also a talented and insightful line editor. She wrote several pages of suggestions for a project Laura was working on urging her to pay attention to the rules of good writing, show rather than tell, stick to a narrative voice, provide colorful details and pay close attention to transitions.

Laura Wilder was working on her autobiography and writing children’s stories. Rose Lane discouraged her from writing children’s stories as trivial with no opportunity to make a name. Initially, her autobiography was rejected despite Rose’s revisions but was ultimately accepted, and she was asked to re-write it as a children’s story. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods sold strongly during the Depression. Wilder was already hard at work on another book. Her books ultimately were listed in the top twenty bestselling children’s book of all time!

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott Author

Laura Ingalls Wilder on her porch, home in the town of Mansfield, Missouri, early 1900’s

Laura Ingalls Wilder became one of the most significant influencers of our American culture. She showed children how to be poor without shame, demonstrated the heroism of endurance, celebrated the simple pleasures and how to make the best of what you have. She spoke against government intervention and opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal believing everyone could and should support themselves. She never acknowledged, perhaps never recognized, that the homesteading both her parents and her own family took advantage of was a gift of the government.

In Fraser’s biography of Wilder, we come to see that her autobiographical novels are stories that transform the brutal hardship she experienced into the American myth of stoicism, a romantic idealism of poverty and the ethos of individualism. We see the contradictions in her strength, perseverance and grit as a woman to aggressively pursue survival without debt with her belief that women belonged at home and in the kitchen. We also see the influence of her cultural times when we use today’s lens to identify the racist language and stereotypes in her books.

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott

Farmer at the plow, “breaking” prairie sod.

Fraser not only writes a detailed story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the historical times in which she lived, but she also chronicles the life of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was Wilder’s editor, instructor and guide who revised and rewrote her work frequently without either of them acknowledging Rose’s contribution. Rose had no compunction to expanding the truth and including creative additions to the story that never happened. Wilder apparently saw nothing wrong with Rose’s fictional reporting. Neither of them heeded the strict standards that emerged at the time from the journalism school at the University of Missouri. Wilder accepted Lane’s practice of merging truth and fiction, publicly claiming that her books were true when at least some of the story was fiction.

Prairie Fires is a detailed, carefully crafted historical work. Fraser places the life of Wilder in the cultural context of the events on the American Plains of the nineteenth century and social forces and seismic shifts of the first half of the twentieth century. These events and social forces molded and shaped Wilder’s voice and philosophy which are embedded in the Little House stories. This cultural context helps us understand their enormous influence. Despite my frustration of so much attention given to Rose Wilder Lane, I highly recommend this book.

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30 May
2018
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Book Review: “The Black Rose” by Tananarive Due

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Black RoseThe Black Rose, by Tananarive Due. is based on the truly inspirational story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, Madam C. J. Walker. She was born in 1867 on a plantation to slave parents who died from yellow fever, “Yellow Jack,” when she was about eight years old. From abject poverty, unable to read but with drive and belief in herself Sarah Breedlove overcame incredible odds. She lost her first husband who was beaten to death by a mob. Then, she worked long hours to establish a successful laundry business only to be humiliated by a white client who found flecks of blood on the white table cloth Sarah had washed. She searched for a solution to her itchy dandruff scalp, the source of the blood flecks, but the existing products did not help. Experimenting with different concoctions in her kitchen, she successfully created a new formula that worked.

After she met C. J. Walker, an advertising wiz, she established a successful hair-care products business and hair schools for women using the Walker method. She was driven by her belief that her mission was to help African Americans to improve themselves and become self-sufficient. Her passion, tenacity and dedication contributed not only to her success, but also to her denial of the risks to her health and to the estrangement of C. J. and her daughter, Lelia.

Tananarive Due has done excellent work in turning a project initially begun by Alex Haley, who became fascinated by Madam C. J. Walker and had begun research for a major novel, into a fascinating and engaging story. She has created a vivid historical narrative of Madam Walker’s life. Although fiction, the book provides an inspiring portrait of America’s first black female millionaire, philanthropist and amazing pioneer.

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3 Apr
2018
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Book Review: “The Boleyn King” by Laura Andersen

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

I love historical novels, and I needed a distraction during a cross country flight. The book The Boleyn King offers creative alternative history by imagining that Anne Boleyn actually gave Henry VIII a son who became king. Within the historical context of a threatening war with the French and Catholic unrest at home, the fictional William trusts only his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend, Dominic who serves as his counselor; and Minuette, who was raised by his mother, Anne Boleyn and serves as Elizabeth’s Lady in Waiting.

The story moves at a good pace providing intrigue and romance which is only increased with the discovery that both William and Dominic are in love with Minuette. This love triangle kept me reading but, I wondered if the character of Minuette could realistically exist in the royal household. Although the book provided the needed distraction on my flight, the story lacks depth and seems to be written for a younger audience. On the other hand, it is an innovative alternative to history and will easily provide a light distracting read perhaps for your summer vacation.

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31 Jan
2018
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Book Review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

The Sympathizer Book Review by Bev ScottThe Sympathizer tells the first-person story of a communist spy embedded in South Vietnam during the “American War.” He serves as a loyal aide to “the General” of the South Vietnamese army at the same time he shares information with his communist handlers loyal to North Vietnam. He evacuates with the General when the U.S. pulls out of South Vietnam and ends up in California as an immigrant. Continuing his close connection to the General as well as his relationship with his handlers, he ultimately returns to Vietnam in a futile attempt to infiltrate North Vietnam and is captured and held prisoner. Held in isolation for a year, he is required by the “faceless” Commandant to write his confession before he is freed. This confession is the first-person story of the book.

I began reading this book as part of my preparation to travel to Vietnam last December. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won a Pulitzer Prize and several other prizes for this book, but I found it very hard to read. The focus switches from description to dialogue, from one location to another, from one character to another without punctuation or explanation. Despite the gripping, wry and historical nature of the story, and what many consider brilliant writing, I had to force myself to continue to read it.

I did finally finish it and valued the Vietnamese perspective it provided. I gradually adjusted to the writing style. I agree that it skillfully draws the reader into the mysteries of Vietnam’s political intrigue. I also appreciated learning more about the impact of selfless commitment and passion to a political cause. The book raises evocative questions regarding the interplay of morality, power and a strong belief in a greater cause while also revealing multiple views on the subject. I am glad I read it.

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16 Jan
2018
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Book Review: “Clancy’s Song” by Ken Hultman and Natalie Hultman

Clancy's Song, book reviewed by Bev Scott

Reviewed by Bev Scott

This is a delightful parable which takes place on the Freedom Cattle Ranch. The soil is fertile and the all-grass diet, supplemented by hay when necessary, supports an organic or natural experimental operation. The story stars four Herefords, Clancy, Beamer, Tank and Gordo, all born on the Day of Light. They were each born into different sects on the ranch which are carefully monitored to keep the hereditary line for each sect pure. The requirements necessary to maintain purity provide the context for the message of the parable.

All the cattle are kept in their assigned territory with their sect; they are not allowed outside the electrical fence, in the frightful territory of “Despairia” where other animals live who kill each other; and they cannot get within 100 feet of the entrance to Bovina. The two-legged creatures or guardian angels select certain cows to go to Bovina, which is the beautiful life beyond the physical existence on the ranch, to live with Father Taurus forever. It is considered quite an honor to be selected to go to Bovina.

New calves must learn and follow the Ten Hereford Laws, attend services to pray to Father Taurus and learn from the bull who is their father and leader of their sect what is the expected and rewarded behavior. Clancy belongs to the “Faithites” who are expected to totally trust Father Taurus; Beamer is a “Lovite,” expected to be pleasant and loving; Tank is a “Holyite” who must participate in the rituals; and Gordo is a “Servite,” dedicated to a life of good deeds.

The story follows each calf as he learns his lessons, tries to meet the expectations of his sect and in turn becomes disillusioned and cautiously challenges the rules. When the four Herefords find each other, they become fast friends alarming the herd leadership. As they explore the ranch, pursue adventures and encounter a bull who has been ex-communicated, they gain insights about the limitations of the rules, the sect expectations and even the reality of Bovina.

The message of Clancy’s Song is in the cattle ranch metaphor which transparently describes what many of us abhor in our own human “ranch:” today’s political divisiveness and ethnic and racial slurs. We are reminded to ask questions, be open, learn all we can, avoid rigidity and judgement, hold others with love and respect and have fun! Good reminders of what I would like to do on my own “ranch.”

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28 Dec
2017
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Book Review: “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

 

The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond TutuThis book records a delightful conversation between two spiritual masters of our time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, facilitated by Douglas Abrams. This conversation celebrated their special birthdays and is offered as a birthday gift to others with an invitation for more joy and more happiness.

Many awful things have happened to the Dalai Lama…exiled from his home and from what is precious to him…yet people experience a compassion, joy and a mischievousness when they speak with him. He offers another angle to look at his exile as giving him new opportunities. He shares a Tibetan saying ‘Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are moral leaders who transcend their own traditions and speak with a concern for humanity as a whole. They want to ensure that they include the over one billion people on the planet who are non-believers. Everyone has a right to become happier human beings and to be good members of the human family. That does not depend on religious faith to educate our inner values.

Their lives model the way. Yet, the Archbishop has never claimed sainthood and the Dalai Lama considers himself a simple monk. Their hope in humanity is inspirational as they refuse to choose the cynicism and despair that threatens to overcome us all. The joy the two of them express does not come from living easy and comfortable lives but rather from facing adversity, oppression and struggle. They argue that lasting happiness is not found in the pursuit of any goal or special achievement or in fortune or fame but only in the human mind and heart. They hope that readers of this inspiring book will find it.The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The Archbishop said that “Joy is bigger than happiness” since happiness is often seen as dependent on external circumstances, joy comes from a state of mind and is rooted in the purpose of life. The Dalai Lama said that one of the great questions underlying our existence is “What is the purpose of life? After much consideration I believe that the purpose of life is to find happiness…The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not power, not status…Sadly, many of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves.” If we create most of our suffering, it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives and the reactions we bring to situations and relationships.

Suffering, even intense suffering, is a necessary ingredient for life, certainly for developing compassion. It is how we face all of the things that seem to be negative in our lives that determines the kind of person we become. Even in pain we can find some positive experiences, some opportunities and some blessings. “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.”  They both say that the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others.” Being joyful is about being more empathetic, more compassionate and more engaged with the world.

The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

With this foundation for happiness and joy, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop discuss with insight and from experience how to heal and turn away from the obstacles to joy such as fear, stress, anger, grief, despair, envy and suffering. Then they offer a path to happiness through the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. The message of this lovely book is that it is a cycle: the more we heal our own suffering and obstacles, the more we can turn to others to help their pain and suffering and, amazingly, the more we turn away from our own selfish issues toward the concerns of others, the more we can transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret of joy.

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12 Oct
2017
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

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17 Aug
2017
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Book Review: “No One Helped: Kitty Genovese, New York City and the Myth of Urban Apathy” By Marcia M. Gallo

 

Book Reviewed by Beverly Scott

"No One Helped" by Marcia Gallo, book reviewSome of us remember and many of us have heard the story of Kitty Genovese’s rape and murder in New York in 1964. I remember as a young woman hearing about her murder and being terrified to go to New York City. I also believed that New Yorkers were an uncaring bunch. Most of what we have heard is wrong.

Based on thorough and detailed research, Marcia Gallo examines the accounts of Kitty Genovese’s tragic death beginning with the early reports the New York Times and other papers. Gallo shines a light on how the details of her attack, her lesbian relationship and the actual response of her neighbors were either ignored or inaccurately reported. She demonstrates how the emphasis of the Times, and especially editor A.M. Rosenthal’s personal interpretation of inaccurate facts of the case, has created and perpetuated the myth of the moral apathy of her neighbors. His version of the events has lived on for decades.

Gallo presents a clear and accessible historical narrative which includes: the public reporting, the residents of the neighborhood of Kew Gardens in Queens where the murder took place, the emerging lesbian and gay community, the issues with reporting a crime during that time, Kitty Genovese’s family and lover, and the many other influences which have often been ignored. This is historical narrative that does not have the emotional drama of crime fiction. It is a well written and detailed analysis of a significant historical and cultural event. As described on the back cover, “No One Helped traces the Genovese story’s development and resilience while challenging the myth it created.”

Book at Amazon

More about Marcia Gallo (LinkedIn)

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