Book Report: Before We Were Yours

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve been hearing about this book for a long time and just hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. So, when it was suggested for the September neighborhood book club book, I was fine with it. Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, was very popular when it was published in 2017, and many of my friends read it then. It sounded really sad to me, and that was when I was skipping anything that sounded remotely sad (thus, was reading nonfiction).

What’s sad about the book is that it’s based on something that actually happened, right here in the USA, in Memphis, Tennessee to be exact. There was a horrible and awful woman named Georgia Tann, who ran an adoption agency there, serving all sorts of famous and wealthy people. They wanted attractive babies and would pay anything for them. So, Georgia Tann would send out people to take attractive, poor children off the streets, force mothers to sign adoption papers while under anesthesia, and other dubious tactics. Names were quickly changed, which made it hard for poor families to find their lost loved ones. Shudder.

The actual Georgia Tann

Yeah, that sounds like a chipper beach read, doesn’t it? And it isn’t chipper, but it is fascinating. The characters in the book all seem very realistic, and you come to admire both the siblings who are taken away from their parents and the present-day adults who try to unravel their mystery. Your heart just hurts for all the families Georgia Tann destroyed, as well as for adoptive parents who were lied to and had no idea where their much-wanted children came from (this includes movie stars like Joan Crawford).

The book is both a historical novel and a mystery, so fans of both genres will enjoy it. You certainly will have a hard time putting it down, as you grow more and more fond of the people you’re reading about.

If you are like me, you will want more background on the actual events. Here’s an article from the NY Times about it. I’m glad these events led to some reform in adoption agencies and that any actual needy children did get good homes (apparently some of the things Tann did were legitimate, and she did help to remove the stigma against orphans that was prevalent early in the twentieth century.

If you’ve read it, share your opinions. If you haven’t, this is a good one to check out.

Book Report: A Girl Is a Body of Water

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was sort of sad to finish my latest relaxation read, A Girl Is a Body of Water, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, because I sure was enjoying my education in the culture, food, and clothing of Uganda. Basically, all I knew about Uganda before was Idi Amin, and he certainly isn’t something worth representing an entire culture with. Well, and I knew the Gandan people spoke Lagala there (among other languages), from when I studied linguistics. I guess that put me one step ahead of most people in my culture.

I also really like the cover.

Do you have to be interested in the culture of Uganda during the 20th Century to read this book? Absolutely not, because the story is beautiful, interesting, and very captivating. You grow to love the characters as you learn more and more about them, especially Kirabo, the main character, and Nsuuta, the blind woman of mystery who is inextricably linked to Alikisa, Kirabo’s grandmother. You just want to know what’s going on with this fascinating and many-layered family!

But for me, the information about traditional Ugandan culture, how it changed with colonialism, through Amin’s reign, to more modern times, was fascinating. The book does a fantastic job of delving deep into the traditional and modern roles of women in Uganda, which parts change and which parts stay traditional. Many of the women Makumbi writes about were among the first to try to do things differently, and you might be surprised at some of the consequences and who encouraged and discouraged them. The way feminism and traditional roles came together in A Girl Is a Body of Water was really skillful.

Makumbi does a great job of introducing new Ugandan words, ideas, and concepts in the course of developing the plot, so it’s easy to learn as you go. I found it fun to try to figure out what some of the words meant, especially foods and items of clothing. I admit to looking some words up, like luwombo, which is a kind of stew-ish dish served in banana leaves. Some words, though, I waited until I could figure them out from context. That is MY idea of a good time. YOU might want to keep Google handy.

Luwombo, from an online brochure. It can feature any meat.

The culture stuff was really fun to learn, too, like what constituted beauty to them, how who was related to whom was calculated, who counts as “family,” and how the deal about having multiple mothers in households with more than one wife worked. It sounded like a lot of love, actually. It was fun to imagine living in a society so different from mine, with different mores and guidelines, but that made perfect sense in its context.

I’m glad I finally was able to get around to reading this book, which I’d had to put off for a while. If you are like me and enjoy learning history through the eyes of women in a culture, you will enjoy this book very much. It’s going to stick with me, and I’ll always wonder how Kirabo did after the book ended. Hey, a sequel, that would be fine with me!

Book Report: The Four Winds

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Finally, I was able to read a neighborhood book club book again. The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (2021) is set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and the horrible Dust Bowl times in Texas, Oklahoma, and surrounding states. It’s definitely not a feel-good beach read, though there is plenty of goodness in it.

This book draws you in quickly, as you’re taken in by the story of CCX and her isolated life in west Texas. Hannah truly tells a good tale and make the characters seem real.

Every once in a while someone says or does something that seems out of character to me, but I just rode along with it. I think some of it is how jarring Elsa’s breakthroughs of her “true self” appear, like when she suddenly goes out and BOOM has sex with the first male she encounters.

You also can’t avoid drawing parallels with our current times. Those hard working farmers just couldn’t grasp that they were actually the source of the problems. The message isn’t subtle, but the points ring true.

The Four Winds seems eerily prescient in 2021 . . . Its message is galvanizing and hopeful: We are a nation of scrappy survivors. We’ve been in dire straits before; we will be again. Hold your people close.”

The New York Times

I was fascinated by the depth of the horror people lived through during the Dust Bowl times. The graphic images of dirt and more dirt are sobering, as are the details of the lives of “Okies” who fled to California.

You’ll come to admire the tenacity of Elsa and her kids and have a hard time putting this one down. I love historical novels like this, where you learn a lot as you enjoy a good tale.

Book Report: Green: The History of a Color

This is the fourth book in the series of books by Michel Pastoureau that detail how colors have been perceived and used through European history that I’ve read. It’s convenient that I was reading this along with the Greenlights book, which has all the green print and green pages. I find the color series really interesting and entertaining, so if you like colors, check out Green: The History of a Color. A lot of what I learned surprised me.

Jane Fonda is smokin’ on the cover, in more ways than one.

You do begin to feel sorry for green, like you did poor yellow in the book I read most recently. It really didn’t get much mention in historical texts, and wasn’t even used in paintings for a long time. One reason was that it has always been difficult to get a green dye that wasn’t made of copper or arsenic or some other poisonous substance. The safe ones were pretty dull. Another was that people just didn’t divide things into colors the way we do now, so a lot of what we would call green was blue or brown to the eyes of people in the past.

Then, poor ole green had a bad reputation of being a color of evil, deceit, and treachery (green knights were never up to any good), unless they were very young men, who were “green” in the untested sense. As time went on, it came to symbolize young love (not necessarily faithful love), peace, and fairy folk.

Apparently, saucy horses wore a lot of green. I love the fact on that horse.

People just didn’t like to wear it, other than a few brief fads where various rulers decided green was their color. Then the sickness came…apparently from covering walls with paint and wallpaper that was green. Some even think that’s what actually got Napoleon.

Green and nature do go hand in hand, though, so there is a lot of green in landscapes and such. A lot of it wasn’t very stable, though, so some landscapes that look brown were once green. And natural objects like the sky, sea, lakes, and rivers were often painted green, not blue. I found that interesting.

Etchings on green paper were popular. I just like this dude’s fuzzy hat.

Since this book dealt primarily with European history, Pastoureau didn’t bring up the color green in other parts of the world. From my studies, I know that Japanese didn’t have a word for green for a long time; aoi meant both blue and green. And the number of colors languages distinguish vary from three to dozens. It just depends on what’s important in a society. For Europeans, Pastoureau notes that texture and other tactile features were more important than color in describing objects (also, apparently in the Middle East when people were writing Biblical passages), which I found pretty interesting.

In addition to all the history stuff, the illustrations in the Green book are just as gorgeous as in the others in the series. These are majorly great coffee-table books (in fact, mine are on the coffee table!) and they are just fun to page through.

Your friends will be green with envy if you display this one, with that fine smoking Jane Fonda on the cover!

Book Report: Brood

It’s rained nearly all day again today. The younger folks saw it was going to rain yesterday and took off for the beach, leaving us hermits to fend for ourselves. Lee was handed a bunch of paperwork before Kathleen left, so he had a project. All my original plans for the weekend were outdoor ones, so I had to regroup. Knit? No, my project is too fuzzy and hot. I decided to read. so, here’s another book report.

A few days ago, one of my old LLL friends shared Brood, by Jackie Polzin, and said the description reminded her of me. I looked at it, saw it was about a woman and her small flock of chickens, and ordered it.

Brood is Polzin’s first novel. Her style is spare and graceful. She tells us just enough to feel moved by her experiences but not so much that you can’t picture yourself in her shoes.

As someone who randomly got chickens and found their habits fascinating and their propensity to die at the drop of a hat pretty confusing, I emphasized a lot with the experiences of the unnamed protagonist of Brood. And her life, while not like mine, mirrored many of my experiences in a broad way. She seems to just float through life, following others, while getting her joy from her ability to control the quality of her avocation (for her, it was cleaning and for me it was knitting).

Anyway, this book packs a subtle but sizable wallop. I got out of it that paying attention to the now is how to lead an authentic and satisfying life. I find that Polzin does a very credible job of demonstrating the centeredness that can come from feeling okay with the transience of everything you care about.

You know, just writing about this little gem of a story made me realize that Brood has helped me see the good in some of my quirks and the validity of some of my awkwardly existentialist/Buddhist leanings.

I feel like reading this every few months, even though I know the plot. The plot is the least important part of Brood for me. I had no idea this novel about a lady in Minnesota and her four chickens would move me. It did!

Book Report: Greenlights

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Did you think I wasn’t reading anymore? Not the case; I’m reading a long-ass book about working equitation and a book in my color series, on green. But, this green-themed book showed up yesterday, so I diverted to read it on a very rare rainy July day.

I didn’t jump to read Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey, the moment it came out last year, because I was busy reading other stuff. But, my love of memoirs by quirky people got the best of me, and when I was ordering another book, I stuck this one in my order. I’m glad I did, because this book is a fun adventure to read and a nice break from some of the “celebrity” books I’ve seen.

My favorite thing is that MM (as I’ll call him, to keep from having to type his surname over and over) is unabashedly honest about himself, which makes reading about his personal and spiritual journey am unexpected joy. As you probably know, one of my favorite pastimes is learning how different people “tick,” and MM gives you a lot of insight into how he got to be the way he is today. His morality is very consistent, and when he sees himself deviating, he goes off and works on it, by gosh. It’s no wonder one of the reviews on the back of the book is by Lee’s hero Ryan Holliday, the modern Stoic guy.

And, yes, it’s a philosophy book as well as a memoir. I’ll admit that some of the stuff seemed to be a bit simplistic, but I didn’t disagree with any of it, either. And I certainly enjoyed how he presented his ideas in photos of sticky notes, bumper stickers, and images of his hand-written notes from various stages of his life. Seeing someone else’s unedited thoughts is quite insightful, and I admire MM for sharing them!

A sample of the book’s layout.

About the Book Itself

Something else I liked about this memoir is the book itself. I like it when a publisher takes a chance and makes a book’s design a feast for the eyes. The physical book itself is even different in a good way. The book jacket is not the size of the book, and is on lovely paper. Then, when you open the book, you’re greeted with all sorts of photos and words inside the cover. This part contributes a lot to the story of MM, and is a delightful surprise.

The book itself has a theme, and by gosh, it sticks to it. MM talks about “greenlights” in his life, which are signals he’s on the right path. The color green appears in the section dividers, in the Venn diagram used to mark sections within chapters, and every time he says “greenlight.” The use of a typewriter-style monospaced font in any content that’s a poem or a philosophical break helps you keep track of what’s in the narrative and what’s an aside. Plus, the bits in MM’s handwriting show what isn’t edited at all.

Section head.

The Content

The other thing I want to say about this book is that it does what I like best in an introspective book, and that’s to NOT go on and on about every famous person the author encounters, every fancy thing the author ever did, etc. Instead, MM focuses on his own thought processes and introduces only people who let him toward his greenlights, most of whom aren’t all that famous (though a few are). His humility seems genuine, not a put-on, and you end the book not thinking how great it was to get to know a movie star, but rather how great it was to follow a man and learn from his insights as he grows and changes. (I also enjoyed reading about his times in Austin, which brought back memories.)

Why I sat and read all day yesterday.

Nope, MM is not much like me at all, but he earns my respect for being true to his ideals, for learning from his mistakes, and for focusing on what he learns from all his experiences. Well, in that way, he IS like what I’d hope to be!

By the way, I read the book by first reading through the narrative part (the “regular book” bits) so that I could keep track of the passage of time, then I went back and read all the inserts and philosophical asides. Those parts are timeless, though it’s cool to figure out where MM was on his journey when he wrote his notes.

So, if you like modern philosophy, spiritual growth, or funny stories about wrestling on other continents, playing bongos naked, or any combination of the above, you’ll like Greenlights. You might even start looking at your life’s challenges in a more positive way.

Book Report: Finding the Mother Tree

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My excuse for not finishing this one sooner is that I was trying to catch up on magazines, thanks to all the “subtle” hints that I have too many piles of them. I did at least get all the horse and decorating magazines finished, so last night I got myself to the end of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard (2021). What a journey this book is!

If this doesn’t make you go hug a tree, nothing will.

I got the book the minute it came out, which is no surprise given how many books on trees, how trees talk to each other, and forest ecology I’ve read in the past couple of years! Simard wrote it in an interesting way, where autobiographical sections are interspersed with some pretty hard-core science content. If you just like stories, you can skim the science; if you just want to know exactly how trees communicate with and support one another, you can bypass the story of her life (but you’d be missing out on an interesting life!).

Simard was born, full of curiosity, into a western Canadian family full of loggers and tough woodland pioneers. It’s no wonder she ended up as a biologist. And she, too, is a pioneer. She had a very hard time getting anyone to listen to her as she explained the effects of clear cutting and re-planting as it was practiced at the end of the 20th century. I really came to admire her tenacity and conviction that she was right.

Mother tree I saw at the horse competition.

Of course, it helped that all her data backed her up, and that eventually she got enough grad students and fellow researchers to make it clear that trees help each other and need each other to survive. I’m glad she did, because her findings are fascinating. Different types of trees are connected, and certain ones use different kinds of fungi help different kinds of trees in their connections, too. It’s all complicated, as one would expect, but fascinating.

The highlight of the book is when Simard talks about “mother trees,” which appear in healthy forests. They are very old, and very well connected. They give their energy to new seedlings and distressed neighbors. It kept making me sad to read about them getting cut down, but I have to credit Simard for acknowledging that we need wood; we just need to be careful with managing forests so they can keep giving us wood!

I know the tree I have pictures of here is or was a mother tree. Just look at her beautiful roots.

Forests that are managed and have all the trees the same age, planted in rows, don’t get the advantages of having mother trees, nor of the diversity of companion trees and understory plants necessary for optimal health, resistance to pests, and protection from diseases.

I’m so glad scientists, and now foresters, are listening to Simard, and that she has passed her work on to her daughter. This woman is an amazing role model for us all.

Book Report: How Stella Learned to Talk

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Oh goodness, what’s not to like? A book about a dog named Stella who’s half American Cattle Dog? A book about language acquisition? A book with scientific evidence to back it up? Nice people to read about? For all the “yes” answers this book provides, I rather raced through How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog, by Christina Hunger. I was pretty darned impressed and excited with all I learned.

I was not out shopping for a dog language book, but when I saw it, I had to get it. Like the author, I’ve always thought animals had a lot to say to us and were probably often frustrated that we were not doing a good job understanding their signals. Unlike me, she was a newly certified speech and language pathologist when she got her beautiful puppy and happened to work with augmentative and alternative communication methods (AAC), which allow many nonverbal people to communicate with their families and friends using technological aids.

Hunger was also curious, and when she saw the puppy going through similar developmental phases to babies and toddlers, she wondered if they could learn to communicate similarly. She uses buttons on the ground that “say” particular words, and slowly enabled Stella to build up a vocabulary.

What impressed me was when Stella began to string together words, use repeated words for emphasis, and create novel strings. That dog can talk!

This is a charming book, and you get to enjoy Hunger and her husband, Jake, as the fumble around figuring things out along with Stella. Well, they aren’t fumbling, since Hunger has the background to know things that are likely to work, just not exactly how they will work or how long it will take.

Knowing that many people will want to start working with AAC and their own dogs, there are hints for working with your dog at the end of each chapter, and they really make a lot of sense to me. I just love how she discourages the use of treats, forcing dogs to use the buttons, and other means of making them use their words. She found that Stella was motivated to communicate on her own and did better if allowed to figure things out herself.

This was our precious Stella in 2015. I never have stopped thinking about her and mourning her passing.

Hunger also points out that they let the dog have an opinion, include her in decisions, and treat her as someone with an equal say in the household, even when everything she wants can’t happen. Respect for Stella has certainly led to a happy family.

That reminds me so much of how we work with horses, where we pay attention to their nonverbal “statements.”

I’m sure it would have been fun to try this with our own Stella, back when we just had one dog. I’m not sure our household is cut out for AAC, but I certainly can pay more attention to our dogs’ cues. And hey, if you’re interested in learning more, you can visit the Hunger for Words website or search for Hunger4words, their Instagram page.

Book Report: Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie

Rating: 5 out of 5.

With all this extra time at the beach and having mostly run out of things to do that actually appeal to me, I’ve had a lot of reading time. I bought three books on Amazon a few days after we got here, and have already finished two of them.

One fine book

The minute I heard that Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR, by Lisa Napoli was out, I ordered it. I have listened to National Public Radio for many years, even when my kids were young, because they would listen to stories and stop the chatter briefly (love those kids, but they had a lot to say…perhaps that’s from being related to me?). I knew they’d had some troubles at some point, but I started listening long after that. What I did know was that I loved listening to all the varied voices I heard, especially Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts.

What a fascinating story of how women came to be “allowed” to be public-facing voices in the news media! And what interesting people these four are/were! My favorite has always been Nina, because I love hearing her describe what goes on in the Supreme Court. It’s like a soap opera. I knew her father was a famous musician, but it was great to learn his story along with hers. And Cokie Roberts, now there’s someone I probably would have hated in college, to my detriment, since she was actually incredibly talented, versatile, and smart. Susan broke the ice for everyone else, and her story of courage and tenacity is most inspirational. It’s similar with Linda, who was so focused on her goals that she just made them come through.

The stories about the history of NPR are just as captivating as the stories of the founding mothers’ lives. A real parade of quirky, visionary, and sometimes not-so-helpful leaders showed up and left. The dude who just let them go bankfupt because NO ONE was watching the money, Frank Mankiewicz, was the villain in the book, and he never shut up after his big screw-up. What impressed me the most was how most of them remained fiercely devoted to NPR even after they left or were shown the door. Public radio is very popular with its fans!

Napoli does a really fine job of weaving fun anecdotes and insider stories about all of the characters in this group biography, and it makes you feel like you know these inquisitive, tough, chain-smoking news geniuses yourself. I appreciate that Napoli doesn’t make these women into saints, but shows how ruthless and cut-throat they could be at times. Their devotion to the news and the truth is fierce and strong, as apparently is their ability to love, since they all seemed to have great spouses to cheer them on.

Yep, this book impressed me and brought me a lot of joy. It easily took my mind off of what is going on in the world around me, but let me pretend I was paying attention to the news; it was just news in the 70s and 80s.

Book Report: Yellow, the History of a Color

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s a reason you haven’t had any book reports in the past week or two, and that’s because it’s taken me a while to get through Yellow, the History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau (2019). This is one in a series of works by this French author, all of which detail how a particular color has been used in European history. I’ve already done his book on red and his book on blue (apparently before I started this blog), and I still have green and black to go through. Not only are these books fascinating to read, but they have rich illustrations, are on thick, quality paper, and look darned good on the coffee table.

The work of art on the cover reminds me so much of my friend JD in New York. Such ennui.

The cover of the book shows a painting called “Study in Yellow,” I think, and it depicts a man sitting in a wicker chair, dressed in a yellow robe, holding his finger in a yellow book to keep his place, and dangling a cigarette out of the other hand. He is looking right at the observer as if to say, “Leave me alone in my foppish revelry.” It’s a good image for the color yellow, which has seldom been a popular color, no matter how cheery yellow flowers are.

Nonetheless, I got greenish-yellow alstroemeria to decorate the condo while we are in South Carolina (greenish yellow is particularly unpopular through history).

One of the most important issues surrounding yellow is that its association with gold at least got it some popularity in ancient times. And, it was one of the earliest colors humans could draw or dye in. So, it did okay, especially with the Greeks and Egyptians.

As time went by, yellow got more and more negative associations. Judas, who betrayed Christ, always wears yellow in paintings (though the Bible didn’t say anything about that). Countries made Jewish people wear yellow hats, insignia, or clothing, long before World War II. Yellow was associated with liars, cowards, prostitutes, and other people of questionable morals, including musicians. It got pretty depressing for a long time. Protestants didn’t help, with all their modesty, dislike of adornment, and fondness for black and grey. Fun times.

Painting by Giotto, showing bad ole Judas with his yellow robe, red hair, and sack of betrayal coins in his bad ole left hand. Plus a Devil.

Thank goodness for the 18th Century, because everyone was happy and people could wear yellow for fun. Then came the 19th and 20th Centuries, which were somber and drab. And thank goodness for painters who used it more and more. There’s a lot of useful information on pigments and dyes, and Pastourneau theorizes that one reason people didn’t wear much yellow is that unless you used expensive colorants like saffron, most yellows were drab and dreary, and not very colorfast.

This painting by Jan Steen is one of my favorites. Not only does it show that Dutch peasants wore yellow, but there’s a dog, a broken egg, and a kid looking right at you.

What’s the good news? Yellow is back in this century, and it’s used more in clothing, homes furnishings, and other areas. I know I personally have a yellow bedroom, and it cheers me up. I’m not down on yellow! Living on the ranch, surrounded by yellow flowers, golden hay and grass, golden autumn willow leaves, and such, I have come to love yellow. So, I’m glad it’s back!

There is so much more about yellow in this book that I can’t summarize well enough to include; it’s worth getting or borrowing from the library. It’s not a good audio book, because the illustrations are half the enjoyment. I’m happy that I still have the green book and the black book to read later.

Much of this morning, you could not tell where the sky stopped and the sea started.

But, now I’m going to finish my knitting project or ELSE, and do some serious work on what’s going on with my mental health. At least I can ruminate with an ocean view!

At least there’s foam to brighten the gloom.