JUDGEMENT DAY

February 1st and winter hasn’t started. The only very cold weather came and went while we were in Arizona. We should take January vacations every year.

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Since November, time has flown. One day it was Halloween, the next Thanksgiving. Then Christmas whooshed past and we were boarding a plane for Phoenix.


I spent all of November and December 2015 reviewing books.

I had more than 60 books to read in two months. Some of the books were very long. The number of hours required exceeded the number of non-sleep hours in the allotted time. It was unfair to me. Even more unfair to the books’ authors.

books and the duke

I’m a fast reader, but I was defeated by the sheer weight of it. It was an “elimination” round to reduce the number of books in the finals, but even so …

All of this explains why I feel as if those months didn’t happen. I barely remember anything. I was buried. While I’m reading, I’m not in this world. I’m wherever, whenever the story is happening. It has left me feeling displaced.

The pressure of participating in projects like this is huge. In theory, I could have quit. I’m not getting paid; I never signed a contract. But I promised. I felt obligated to keep my word. Even when I felt hard done by.

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By the end of this month, I might be able to write again. Reading is supposed to inspire writing, but 60 books in as many days drained me. I’m still recovering.

It is making me rethink the meaning of “fair.” Maybe it also explains some of the more bizarre selections I’ve seen as literary “winners.”

https://teepee12.com/2016/02/03/tax-time-with-royalties/

NON-WHITE AMERICA IN NORMAN ROCKWELL’S PAINTINGS – JANE ALLEN PETRICK

NormanRockwell Little RockJane Allen Petrick has written a wonderful book about Norman Rockwell, the artist and his work. It focuses on the “invisible people” in his painting, the non-white children and adults who are his legacy.

For many readers, this book will be an eye-opener — although anyone who visits the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts or takes a serious look at Rockwell’s body of work can see Norman Rockwell never portrayed a purely white America. This perception of Rockwell’s work is a gross injustice to a man for whom civil rights was a personal crusade.

This country’s non-white population were in Rockwell’s paintings even when he had to sneak them in by a side door,figuratively speaking. Black people, Native Americans and others are anything but missing. Rockwell was passionate about civil rights and integration. It was his life’s cause, near and dear to his heart. Yet somehow, the non-white peoples in his pictures have been overlooked, become invisible via selective vision. They remain unseen because white America does not want to see them, instead choosing to focus on a highly limited vision which fits their prejudices or preconceptions.

Ms. Pettrick tells the story of Rockwell’s journey, his battle to be allowed to paint his America. It is also the story of the children and adults who modeled for him. She sought out these people, talked to them. Heard and recorded their first-hand experiences with the artist.

This is a fascinating story. I loved it from first word to last. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT is available on Kindle for just $3.49. It’s also available as a paperback.

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From the Author

Whether we love his work or hate it, most of us think of Norman Rockwell as the poster child for an all-white America. I know I did. That is until the uncanny journey I share with you in this book began to unfold.  Then I discovered a surprisingly different truth: Norman Rockwell was into multiculturalism long before the word was even invented.

Working from live models, the famous illustrator was slipping people of color (the term I use for the multi-ethnic group of Chinese and Lebanese, Navajos and African-Americans the artist portrayed) into his illustrations of America from the earliest days of his career. Those people of color are still in those illustrations. They never disappeared. But the reason we don’t know about them is because, up until now, they seem to have been routinely overlooked.

For example, in her book, “Norman Rockwell’s People,” Susan E. Meyer catalogues by name over one hundred and twenty Norman Rockwell models, including two dogs, Bozo and Spot. But not one model of color is named in the book.

Another case in point? “America, Illustrated,” an article written for The New York Times by Deborah Solomon, art critic and journalist In honor of (an) upcoming Independence Day, the entire July 1, 2010 edition of the paper was dedicated to “all things American.”

“America, Illustrated” pointed out that Norman Rockwell’s work was experiencing a resurgence among collectors and museum-goers. Why? Because the illustrator’s vision of America personified “all things American.” Rockwell’s work, according to the article, provided “harmony and freckles for tough times.” As Solomon put it, Norman Rockwell’s America symbolized “America before the fall.” This America was, apparently, all sweetness and light. Solomon simply asserts: “It is true that his (Rockwell’s) work does not acknowledge social hardships or injustice.”

The America illustrated by Norman Rockwell also, apparently, was all white. Seven full-color reproductions of Rockwell’s work augment the multi-page Times’ article. The featured illustration is “Spirit of America” (1929), a 9″ x 6″ blow-up of one of the artist’s more “Dudley Doright”-looking Boy Scouts. None of the illustrations chosen includes a person of color.

This is puzzling. As an art critic, Solomon surely was aware of Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings. The most famous of these works, “The Problem We All Live With,” portrays “the little black girl in the white dress” integrating a New Orleans school.

One hundred and seven New York Times readers commented on “America, Illustrated,” and most of them were not happy with the article. Many remarks cited Solomon’s failure to mention “The Problem We All Live With.” One reader bluntly quipped: “The reporter (Solomon) was asleep at the switch.” The other people in Norman Rockwell’s America, people of color, had been strangely overlooked, again.I have dedicated Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America to those “other people”: individuals who have been without name or face or voice for so long. And this book is dedicated to Norman Rockwell himself, the “hidden” Norman Rockwell, the man who conspired to put those “other people” into the picture in the first place.

SEND IN THE CLOWNS

America, land of the brave and the free. Photo by Turtsman.

My father was not a wise man, but a smart one who knew how to make money. He was a lifelong Democrat, small businessman and other things I would prefer not to delve into right now. A big part of his salesman’s repertoire were one liners and jokes. This was a favorite of mine.

It isn’t what you don’t know that will get you. It’s what you DO know that’s wrong.

Albert Friedman
Self-Made American (1917 – 2010)

How true it is, and also, how sad. So many people knowing with complete certainty so much that is so wrong. For them, the motto will forever be thus:

Don’t confuse me with facts! My mind is made up.

If you want to maintain your bona fides as a Real American, you should continue to watch only Fox News. It will help to reinforce your unfounded opinions by presenting pseudo facts and speculation in lieu of real information and you will believe every word. Rupert Murdoch is laughing all the way to his offshore accounts.

Don’t read anything that contains facts unless they comply with your preconceptions. In fact, it might be best to avoid reading entirely. Make a flag of your ignorance. Wave it proudly. Tell the world you know nothing and don’t want to learn nothin’ neither.

Finally, proclaim that you are the prototypical American, unlike the rest of us snobbish book-reading socialist anti-Christian liberals who don’t agree with you. After that, you can wonder why the world is losing respect for the United States. Maybe it has something to do with “true Americans” like you with your passion for ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and stupidity.

You vote against your own best interests because you vote not for people who will help you, but for those who share your hates. Anyone can have you by preying on what you hate. You hate so many things that you are easily had. You are America’s fools and losers, the people about whom H.L Mencken spoke when he said:

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

H. L. Mencken
US editor (1880 – 1956)

ROMANTIC SNOBBERY

It isn’t just culture that divides us into classes. What we watch on television, see in the movies, and read also puts us into a category, often unfairly by people who don’t “get” why we like what we like.

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I read a post about how dreadful — yet gripping — romance novels can be. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that anyone who reads them is probably not too bright. While it’s true that romance novels are the potato chips of the literary world (bet you can’t eat just one) that’s not the point.

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As a former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I assure you that research showed readers of romance novels are better educated than most readers.

They read romance novels because they are pulp. These readers aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down, and forget. If life gets in the way, they can just never finish the story — without regret.

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I read each 3-book volume, every month. Three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would prefer people enjoy, people don’t always read good books. I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where that book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it. Don’t enjoy the subject matter. Don’t need to be further depressed by the ugly realities of life or history.

Good books can be too intense, too serious, or educational for this moment in time. Too close to reality. I read to be entertained. I’m not seeking enlightenment through literature. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment through literature. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

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The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many. Enough genres, themes, and styles for everyone. An infinity of literature. No matter what your taste — low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

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I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too.

Snobs suck the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s okay with me. I love reading about vampires and witches. I’d be more than a hypocrite to act as if your taste is inferior to mine.

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These days, I’m rarely in the mood for anything serious — except maybe a conversation. Tastes change over time. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I want to escape, Reality will still be there when I get back.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in those books. I believe for him, there was.

WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in a year ago by Audible.com, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

JAMES ZERNDT – THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

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There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each.  There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.

BETTE STEVENS – DOG BONE SOUP – AN INDIE BOOK REVIEW

IN HONOR OF INDIE AUTHOR’S DAY!

DOG BONE SOUP is the long-awaited “rest of the story”of Shawn Daniels from the original short story, “Pure Trash.” It’s particularly long-awaited for me because as soon as I read the short story, I wanted to read this book. The only problem was, Bette hadn’t yet written it.

But she did it. Dog Bone Soup is available for your reading pleasure. And what a pleasure it is.

Bette has the purest, freshest writing style I’ve read in many a long year. Reading her prose is like peering into an exceptionally clear, deep pool. It looks like the bottom is close enough to touch, but those waters run deep.

Bette Stevens is a class act, an author who knows how to tell a story. Her characters are real, so true to life, they practically leap off the page. In Dog Bone Soup, style and the story are blended to perfection.

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I’ve read a lot of books about rural poverty and for some reason, all those stories are set in the south. This is as far from south as you can get. It’s a timely and important reminder that poverty is not a regional issue.

Poverty is everywhere, from the biggest cities to the hidden hamlets where tourists never go. Children pay the highest price.

Shawn Daniels’ story is wonderful. It’s about growing up and coming of age for a poor kid from a dysfunctional family. His world is cold and hardscrabble. A drunken father, a vanishing mother. Foster parents with no love to share, teachers who can’t see past patches and frayed cuffs. Yet somehow Shawn forges a road of his own. Armed with courage, intelligence, humor, and grit, he grows into a strong young man with solid values. He creates his own future.

Sometimes, very little can be enough.

There’s nothing depressing about this story. How come? Because Shawn Daniels hasn’t a shred of self-pity in him. Despite the challenges he faces, Shawn is never down. Not depressed, discouraged, broken, or beaten. This kid has grit. Determination and a solid grip on his own worth.

Where does it come from? Mom, sometimes. A few others who see Shawn’s value and give him a hand along his path. A personal, hard-wired toughness that lets him see past the life he is living it to the life he wants — and for which he is willing to work. Mostly, it is Shawn’s own sharp intelligence which enables him to understand his world. It lets him trust his judgment without bogging down in unearned guilt. He makes smart decisions.

It’s a great story — and it’s far from over.

About the author

BAS Author logo stamp 2015Inspired by nature and human nature, author Bette A. Stevens is a retired elementary and middle school teacher, a wife, mother of two and grandmother of five. Stevens lives in Central Maine with her husband on their 37-acre farmstead where she enjoys writing, gardening, walking and reveling in the beauty of nature. She advocates for children and families, for childhood literacy and for the conservation of monarch butterflies (milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat).

Bette A. Stevens is the author of award-winning picture book AMAZING MATILDA; home/school resource, The Tangram Zoo and Word Puzzles Too!; and PURE TRASH, the short story prequel to DOG BONE SOUP.