Years ago I watched a lovely video about Helene Hanff, a New York script writer with a passion for antiquarian books. 84 Charing Cross Road is the title of it. Based on the book of her letters to Marks & Company, a colorful, poignant story emerges about a starving New York screenwriter and Londoners recovering from the devastation of the war who became her friends through their love of literature.
The shop employees became Helene’s friends over a 20-year period of correspondence. She had learned, from an English couple who lived in her building, that Londerers were under strict rationing of meat, eggs, and other commodities in post war England. She began to send packages filled with canned meats, dried eggs, and later, nylons to the women employees at the store. Each one began to write Helene notes stuffed into the envelope with those of the proprietor, Frank Dole. Most of the letters are hilarious, others sad, but all dripping with the little details of lives during this period of history in the U.S.A. and London: 1949 – 69.
However, the letters between Frank Dole, proprietor at Marks & Company, and Helene, function like an artwork where a few essential lines allow the viewer to fill in the full portrait. I love books like this that spark the imagination while providing an essential record of the times in which they lived. It is a love story of a kind which you will just have to investigate yourself to know what I mean.
Helene Hanff’s humorous and unedited opinions on everything from “cardboarddy” American published books to baseball are timeless. We learn about a self-educating writer whose love of English literature filled her mind and soul with inspiration as she followed her heart’s delight through the diligence and exceptional taste of Marks & Company and whose employee — Frank Dole — roamed the castles and estates of Merry Ole England finding rare and second-hand antiquarian books of English Literature. Helene’s tastes were specific to the point of eccentricity but Frank “got” Helene. His letters include a satisfying refrain that makes this second-hand book lover feel deep satisfaction: “a good clean copy”.
Helene writes that she loves a book that has been read before with notes or marks that link them as voyagers on the same journey. Do you relate? I am a reader who loves that. I like to find original purchase receipts from, say, the 1950’s or earlier. Maybe its been made on an old receipt pad, the ones with the black inked page in between the proprietor’s copy and the buyer’s receipt.
The copy of 84 Charing Cross Road that I purchased is a limited new edition published by another antiquarian book company in London — Slightly Foxed. My edition came in a nice cloth binding and eggshell-colored paper with gilded edges, a very “clean copy”, and a note handwritten by one of the women proprietors. I regularly tune into the Slightly Foxed Podcast to learn about books, publishing, and authors “across the pond”.
It was not until after Frank Dole died, and Marks & Company closed, that Helene thought to publish the letters. She finally received a decent enough income from the popularity of the book that allowed her to visit the London “of English Literature” and the old building and shopfront at 84 Charing Cross Road which had become such an important part of her life.
Think about what letters you may possess that could tell a story which is actually never fully manifest on the page but which is evoked between the lines. I highly recommend that you read Hanff’s book before you embark on that journey! Also watch the video, in which Helene is played be Anne Bancroft and Frank by Anthony Hopkins.
Order your book from Slightly Foxed. Let’s help out those London girls with a passion for good literature.
My book reading has become a smash-up of poetry, political nonfiction, historical fiction, and classics.
Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow by Jesse Stuart: Kentucky farmer turned nationally recognized poet, this book of sonnets from Stuart’s 55-acre farm in Eastern Kentucky is a treasure. See Jesse Stuart Foundation for more about the book and poet.
Voyager by Diana Gibaldon: Third in her Scotland-based fiction phenomenon (8 books in the Outlander series and over 35 million copies sold across the world), Gibaldon delivers her own brand of humor, nature-based description of unforgettable wildlands, ingenious plots, and ever more captivating love stories between its main characters — Jamie and Claire — I read at night for pure fun and joy.
Cold Warriors by Duncan White: I just started this book which I bought after listening to Duncan on C-Span Books TV. It tells the story of the Cold War through the lives of the writers who chronicled it in their fiction, poetry, and journalism. From Aldous Huxley to Boris Pasternak, the book is written deftly propelling me along like a novel of intrigue.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Written on bits and scraps of paper in a tiny script, inspired by the great barrens that swept across the sky outside her hometown, modified after her death by her sister Charlotte, and copiously interpreted, the book remains a wonder of the English language that still carries power after nearly 180 years. Skip the interpretations and just read for the sheer beauty of it.
Other books lying around started, put down for now, or waiting:
With authors I value, like Barbara Kingsolver, the wait for a new work can often be lengthy. My wait was amply rewarded. In Unsheltered–2018 HarperCollins–she had created parallel narratives that articulate across two centuries in the American experience. Her device is a house and property shared by the characters in different centuries. The 21st Century Wilma and 19th Century Thatcher are adults navigating giant shifts in social paradigms. For Wilma and her family it is the economic collapse of the middle class and the dissolution of the ideals her generation pursued. Climate change knocks ominously at her door. For Thatcher it a pre-Darwin American culture in a panic to hold onto Christian perspectives by rejecting rational observation of how the world works (akin to today’s denial of science).
Wilma’s multigenerational family reflects at once a 1) disenfranchised, racist white America (grandfather); 2) boomer parents (Wilma and Iano); 3) grown kids who pursued differing paths–Harvard financial education (Zeke), and post-apocalyptic youth (Tig). Add Baby Dusty, Wilma’s grandson whom she is mothering after the death of Zeke’s wife, and you have four generations, each navigating their own realities. The dialogue along the way explores the contemporary ocean of conflicting values and ideas of today’s American society with our economic, social, and environmental challenges.
Unsheltered is a nuanced conversation between Kingsolver, her characters, and the reader that is slow at times but never boring and long enough to examine previous and contemporary times for understanding the confabulations of collective memory–an existential wail of ‘Who are we?’
Twenty-something Tig exclaims to her mother, “The guys in charge of everything right now are so old. They really are, Mom. Older than you. They figured out the meaning of life in, I guess, the nineteen fifties and sixties. When it looked like there would always be plenty of everything. And they’re still applying that to now. It’s just so ridiculous.”
For individuals like me, awash in Trump-a-Con, Unsheltered is a beacon. Kinsolver’s Afterward explains her own journey to understand “the times”, explaining to readers how she wrote a novel about real historical figures and set the novel in South Jersey in a small town, Vineland. Along the way, she traveled many miles, including London where walked in the footsteps of Charles Darwin.
This book is a needed contribution to understanding our time as one when the “world as we know it” appears to be ending. It is ultimately a great story that takes us into the author’s creative mind. I am so grateful to Kingsolver!
What the Eyes Don’t See is a book written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As a pediatrician and Community Health Residency Director at Hurley Center in Flint. Dr. Mona (as her tiny patients refer to her) learned from a high school friend, an environmental scientist, that she should be concerned about lead in the water in Flint. She was surprised. The Flint authorities told everyone the water was fine to drink. Like most of us, she expected the people “in charge” to protect the public. Isn’t that what government is for? But, Dr. Mona’s friend said no — it is not safe. That began an 8-month odyssey that grew from a conversation between two friends to a consortium of doctors, scientists, activists, and parents who exposed the cover up and righted a huge wrong. Dr. Mona knew all too well what lead exposure does to developing children.
I highly recommend this book for its depth, its fluid story development, and its educational value for every adult in the U.S. and for the sake of every child. I read it over two days, hardly able to put it down. See Dr. Mona on the web.
Exposure to high lead levels as infants and children can cause irreversible damage to their brains and other organs. Gray matter in the brain is eroded so that the child has problems with attention and impulse control; it affects white matter in nerves that carry signals in the brain; it is suspected of having epigenetic effects – changing a child’s DNA which means it can be passed to future generations. People exposed to lead as children show higher rates of crime and addiction as teens and adults. Lead in the body can erode eyesight and affect other organs.
Dr. Mona encapsulates the story in 1) the political policy — austerity; 2) the socioeconomic history of the city and those most affected by the lead poisoning — an environmental injustice; 3) the U.S. practice of requiring the victim to prove harmfirst rather than using the Precautionary Principle: when danger is suspected, move with caution, using science to understand the risk.
In 2014, due to Flint’s bankruptcy, the state assigned an emergency manager who alone made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the more expensive fresh water of the Great Lakes to river water. The Great Lakes water was treated with a corrosion control to prevent leaching of chemicals like lead into the drinking water. The new manager decided to not use corrosion-control treatment of the river water as a way to save money–his primary mandate.
Dr. Mona points out that the city lost democracy with the assignment of an emergency manager appointed by the state. The city was in free-fall economically not by the fault of any of the families and small businesses that were struggling economically in Flint. The wealthy either moved out, or changed the housing and voting districts to wall themselves off from the poorer workers and neighborhoods. The people were essentially punished for being poor. Extreme austerity was what they got, a short-sighted, unjust policy.
When Dr. Mona and her team began to contact authorities to alert them and request data, they were met by silence or by bureaucratic barriers. They had to “prove” the harm done to children before the authorities would agree there was a problem. To protect industry, the U.S. requires harm to be proved first unlike all other nations in the world. Instead, Dr. Mona points to the Precautionary Principle.
Everyone in America knows that lead is dangerous, and officials in government know that corrosion-control in municipal water quality prevents leaching of lead. So why should she need to prove anything. Shouldn’t the authorities move with caution first to protect the possible harming of children? Again, in policy, money came before the kids.
Dr. Mona worked with data experts, scientists, policy makers, and many others to pull data, analyze it with rigorous methods to be sure the increase in lead that they were seeing was true. It was far worse than they expected. Thousands of children in the prime months and years of their development were impacted. But, just as you can’t see lead in the water, you won’t see the changes in the children for months or even years. So, one has to be cautious, right?
This book is something more. It is the story of an immigrant family who fled a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein) to live in the U.S. Mona and her brother were natural born Americans but her parents brought the traditions of their country and lives to their home in America. I was fascinated to learn more about the history of Iraq. Instead of the war-torn, fearful images I have only seen through U.S. media during the Iraq war, I learned about the Iraq Republic before the revolution that installed Saddam. Women had similar freedoms to American women today. It’s hard to imagine that such a complete transformation of the country has happened in such a short period of time and a warning to our country to watch for destabilizing influences on our democracy. Mona describes her parents and grandparents, the food, language, and story traditions from Iraq that are lovely and that I related to my own familial traditions. Her family members, each in their own way, emulated qualities of citizenship and justice that Mona clearly inherited.
Dr. Mona opened the world a little more to me. This perspective of the immigrant is vital to understanding other nations and our role in the world. I kept thinking as I was reading, “Thank God we let her family immigrate to America. Look what she and her family have contributed to the welfare of our country!”
Landing in the America that made it possible for Dr. Mona to be a doctor, she began to see that there were “two Americas” – the one that worked for her and her brother, and the one that doesn’t work for most of the residents of Flint. The families most affected by the poisoned water were the same ones who could not pay for bottled or filtered water. Children impacted by the poisoned water were already dealing with major stressors such as malnutrition, neglect or abuse–all the impacts of poverty. Dr. Mona explains what we know about the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, of A.C.E’s which cause such ailments as chronic asthma. Dr. Mona teaches the reader about Community Medicine that looks not just at physical health but also zip code–the socio-economic correlates of health. The book is annotated and provides references for professionals and parents in the back of the book. It contains an excellent summary of Flint’s history from the heyday of GM’s dominance to the disenfranchised neighborhoods of today. This gives readers a setting in which to understand how and why the story unfolded as it did.
Dr. Mona works in a public hospital so she sees and cares for the poorest residents. Her amazing story is about the indignation of one doctor who would not stop until she exposed the lead levels of kids she saw at Hurley. She tells the story of the coalition of friends, fellow professionals, legislators, and parents who managed in only 8-months to expose the truth. Ultimately, the governor mandated the switch back to fresh, Great Lakes, corrosion-treated water. It was a victory but it is also powerful implication of America’s environmental injustices. And it is an ongoing effort to stay with all the kids affected to make their futures as bright as possible.
Direction for Communities Across the Country: As Dr. Mona travels around the country to introduce the book, she is teaching all of us about community resilience and how coming together we can provide buffers to poverty and neglect that will help stabilize children, and how we can all work together to provide kids in low-income neighborhoods with books, with mentors., with education, and a social fabric that helps each child and parent be more resilient to stressors.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is just one child of immigrant parents who has become an amazing advocate for American children who is also showing our nation where we must re-examine our policies at least as they affect the very young.
Dr. Mona is exposing much more than lead in the water. She is showing us a direction to live up to our creed that all people are equal and deserving of equal rights and protections under the law. Her book is a call for government to live up to its mandates and for citizens to make sure they do. Ultimately, Dr. Mona explains that she is a believer in the role of good government as opposed to extreme policies of austerity which are often short-sighted and basically unfair. I agree.
Hidden in Plain Sight (2008 Princeton University Press) written by Barbara Bennett Woodhouse examines past and evolving perspectives on the human rights of children. Written for both students of law and the general American public, this book offers a solid methodology for how to think about the rights of children through the science of human development. It frames the rights of children by grounding them in basic human rights values of privacy, agency, equality, individual dignity, and protections.
Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law, and director of the Child Rights Project at Emory University. She is also the Donald H. Levin Chair Emeritus in Family Law at the University of Florida.
Woodhouse presents the stories of historical figures familiar to Americans (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglas, and Ben Franklin) as well as children she has known in her work as a legal representative, a law professor, and a witnessing advocate for children and families.
As the reader follows these lives, learning new insights about familiar Americans, the author describes her own journey to understanding of the problems and solutions society faces in adjudicating the rights of children in numerous situations such as living in child intolerant times, slavery, abandonment, violence, and juvenile justice institutions.
As I read each chapter, Woodhouse gave me ways to think about each child or teenager, how she thought about it and has since changed her mind or confirmed her understanding. The basic premise is that children’s rights in the U.S. are tragically wanting for just policies and deeper understanding of the ecology of child development as we understand it today. Woodhouse compares America’s policies and legal record on children’s rights to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It is the most rapidly ratified human rights convention in the history of United Nations, yet the U.S. has not joined the international community for fear that the rights of children might infringe on parents’ individual rights and undermine adult authority and control.
Woodhouse argues that the contemporary cult of individualism often contributes to harsh sentencing of children who have committed crimes and are held responsible for their actions by courts of law without due consideration of children’s developmental ability to understand the ramifications of their actions.
Hidden in Plain Sight asks readers to consider our American values in the light of the human rights of children. She evokes the language of the U.N. Special Session for Children:
A world made fit for children is a world fit for everyone.
With little personal foundation in legal study, this book read well for me as an unfolding argument by an experienced legal expert, a mother, and a legal guardian of children. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is concerned with the protection of children, and citizens who worry about the future we adults are creating for the children in our lives and around the world.
Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.
Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is a masterpiece of contemporary American literature. After 16 novels, books of poetry, and memoir, and nominations for the Pulitzer, and winner of the National Book Award, this novel is a culmination of her storytelling, use of language, and imagination.
I’ve read and studied Erdrich’s works for at least 15 years, eagerly awaiting each new novel. Some have exceeded my expectations, others have not but are still excellent reads. But this one, THIS is an achievement — not just for her as a writer and artist — but for our times.
The writing is beautiful and flows with such ease, concise yet vivid description, that reading is seamless. The plot moves with tremendous pace and at times I was so full of suspense that I had to put my hand over the next sentence to keep myself from jumping ahead. As a woman with a daughter and sisters, and nieces, I was drawn to the main character, Cedar, who writes a diary for her unborn child — a record of a time when all that people assumed would never change was upended overnight.
If you are a woman of child-bearing age or a woman concerned about protection of women’s rights, if you are a a man who values women, a person of faith, or a citizen who wishes to understand this age, this time on earth, then you need to read this book. The earth is changing, we are changing.
In the dystopian tale, so prescient for today, she manages to still uplift the reader. She is a weaver of legend, personal destinies, and her own cultural perspective. Louise Erdrich manages to show us there is still hope, still good to be cherished and brought forward in all of us. Yet, Erdrich bravely portrays a potential future that threatens all we hold as good and right in human behavior, and the fate of the earth.
Thursday morning I was blessed to join a tour group from Baltimore’s Civil Rights Movement at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They are teachers, leaders, and powerful women traveling the civil right trail — next stop Memphis at the National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Hotel.
Great women have made significant contributions to democratic societies. Daisy Bates is one of these women. As our talented NPS Interpreter stated today, “If it hadn’t been for Daisy, there would not have been a Little Rock Nine or desegregation as it unfolded in Little Rock.”
Daisy Bates was the President of the Arkansas NAACP at the time of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education which desegregated public schools in the U.S. Nine children were identified by the Little Rock School Board to integrate Central High School. At the time, Governor Orval Faubus was not supporting the federal mandate and called in the National Guard to keep out the black students. Daisy realized that the nine teenagers would need protection and help and she organized meetings and support to help them on the first and subsequent days of their trials and tribulations. This story, and the life of Daisy Bates, is chronicled in her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which I am currently reading. The individual stories of the nine students are each dramatic and many are told in their memoirs. What white students did inside the school to the nine black students, following integration, and the teachers who turned their backs, is horrendous and rarely told. I highly recommend that you visit this national historic site to reset your compass on American history and the long struggle of all American people for fulfillment of basic rights. As we see today, that struggle if still in progress. But, looking back to such pillars of courage and decency as Daisy Bates gives me renewed hope for a future all of us can make happen together.
If you have a church group or book club that might wish to read a story about Tucson, with familiar settings and characters, give me a call at: 520-400-4117 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Threshold makes an enormous contribution to contemporary literature by teaching readers—in engaging and utterly consumable terms—about the physics of “the planet’s human induced fever.” Susan Feathers stages the need to know as part of the narrative dynamic. Key characters —academics, school teachers, museum biologists—understand only too well the processes by which the earth is growing hotter, while others don’t. The latter are in some cases too young or inexperienced to know; in other cases they’re complacent or too far in denial to face them. Those who know teach those who don’t. Through lively dialogues concerning, for example, how sunlight gets converted to electricity; or how oceans absorb solar energy; or how neighborhoods can set up electrical generating systems, we learn along with the characters. We’re invited to go through the same processes of recognition and assimilation that the various students in the story experience. READ A REVIEW ~ Mary Lawlor, Muhlenberg College
This Christmas my son, Tom, gave me Winston Groom’s terrific new book, The Aviators. Groom paints a detailed portrait of Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh.
Each was an extraordinary person. Besides their enormous personal courage , they displayed a generosity of spirit in their willingness to improve aviation, make better airplanes and instruments, test pilot experimental designs, and play key roles in aviation and space after the war – all for love of country.
Groom writes with the easy rhythm of a old storyteller about the historical events of the 20th century’s technological transformation, and studies the influences in the development of boy to man, and the personal struggles and triumphs of each of these iconic American heroes.
In exploring the inner lives of his subjects the author exhibits a good dose of fairness. This was never more true than how he handled the complex life of Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh, like Rickenbaker and Doolittle, began with the belief that aviation would change the world for the better. But as Lindberg’s life unfolded he experienced a series of blows that caused him to change his values nearly 180 degrees from where he started.
The first blow came not from his young son’s kidnapping and death (though personally traumatic), but from the American public’s relentless thirst for tabloid sensationalism. Haunted day and night, even suspected of murdering his own son, Charles and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh, fled America to Europe for personal peace.
Groom then follows a complex series of invitations to the Lindberghs by heads of state – including Nazi leaders like Goering who asked him to fly various new planes Germany was turning out by the thousands.
Due to a series of events including a medal from Hitler in honor of his courage and accomplishments, Americans and especially FDR accused him of being a traitor to his own country – which only served to drive the Lindberghs into further isolation from the press.
Lindbergh opposed America’s participation in WWII because he observed first hand the superior technological capabilities of Germany in aviation. He believed America would suffer great losses. This opposition led to Lindbergh plummeting from national hero to villain in the minds of many Americans.
But Lindbergh joined in helping America after Pearl Harbor, even though the President would not let him reenlist (Lindbergh gave up his commission when he fled to Europe). Lindbergh worked for aircraft companies in the states and engineered improvements in aircraft that saved thousands of aviators’ lives and increased the capabilities of the US military.
After the war he was invited to reenlist, and during a top secret mission for the U.S. military, Lindbergh observed the terrible destruction of Europe. of the land, and was among the first eye witnesses to Nazi death camps. These experiences shook him to his core.
While reading Grooms’ magnificent book, I learned that Lindbergh asked the publisher William Jovanovich (a friend and publisher at Harcourt, Brace, and Janvanovich) to edit and publish essays and journal notes from across his life in a book after his death. Lindbergh had just learned he was dying from lymphoma.
The book chronicles the evolution of his ideas about technology and the environment. Lindbergh had become an advocate for wild lands and wildlife. The book that was published is Autobiography of Values. Lindbergh had spent years traveling the world learning cultural values from indigenous tribes.
He noted that in each culture the relationship with the land and with wildlife was very different than in the so-called civilized nations. He concluded that man’s pursuit of science must be guided by other, deeper values – values that relate to our responsibility to the land, wildlife, and each other. He described his journey as one of finding true values. (Read a perceptive book review in the New York Times from 1978.)
Visit the Lindbergh Foundation to see how Reeve Lindbergh – Charles and Anne’s youngest daughter – with notables like Neil Armstrong – has carried the traditions of her parents into the 21st century by establishing awards and collaborations supporting, among many exciting initiatives, development of an electric plane. The intent is to fly a plane from NY to Paris but with no gas! Explore the website to learn about many visionaries carrying the flame of innovation but with a new, informed set of values.
Thanks, Tommy. This gift given to honor your grandfather (a WWII bomber pilot) will always hold an important place in my heart. Its also a great read that I know I will return to again and again.
Hope Beneath Our Feet, Restoring Our Place in the Natural World is a new anthology of essays by well-known and lesser known authors who responded to this question: In the midst of environmental crisis, how can we live NOW?
The book’s genesis is the work of Martin Keogh, its Editor. In the forward, Martin describes how his children expressed a sense of hopelessness about the future as they considered climate change or nuclear war—challenges that dwarf our sense of being able to make a difference. He wondered how human beings can keep hope and live well in very uncertain times. In 2006 Martin issued a call to writers to submit an essay answering the question above.
The book is published by North Atlantic Press and is now in its third printing – barely a month after its release.