Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin

Ever heard of Pfaff's Restaurant and Lager Beer Saloon? I had not before reading Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians by Justin Martin. When we visited manhattan, we may have passed right by the historic saloon's basement location on Broadway without knowing. Pfaff's (with a silent P) is where a literary circle met nightly in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Most of the authors, actors, and painters who hung out at Pfaff's have been forgotten, but they epitomize figures of tragic starving artists. Most died young with only one or two moments of fame, but they were joined by poet Walt Whitman, who became a primary character in the story of American literature.

Roughly half of Rebel Souls is about the time the circle met in the basement around a big table ruled by Henry Clapp, Jr., the King of Bohemia, a former temperance advocate turned whisky drinker and literary magazine editor. About a quarter to a third of the book focuses on Whitman. The second half of the book recounts the lives of circle after they ventured away, some participating in the Civil War.

Among those forgotten soon after their deaths:

  • Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who wrote The Hasheesh Eater, which detailed his college experiments with drugs, and who later accompanied painter Albert Bierstadt on a western painting expedition. (Bierstadt stole Ludlow's wife.)
  • Ada Clare, an actress and unwed mother who also wrote poetry and essays for Clapp's Saturday Press magazine.
  • Fitz-James O'Brien, a journalist and cartoonist who died a lingering death after a battle injury as a Union soldier.
  • Adah Isacs Menken, another actress, who seems to have foreshadowed Marilyn Monroe by a century.
Late on the scene were Artemus Ward, who essentially became America's first stand-up comic, and Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor whose brother assassinated the president.

Rebel Souls is rich with biographical profiles and historical incidents and will please readers interested in 19th century America. It may also connect with people who lived through the 1960s.


Martin, Justin. Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians. Da Capo Press, 2014. 339p. ISBN 9780306822261.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Latehomecomer: An Hmong Family Memoir by Kai Kalia Yang

I love when Laura introduces me to a good book. We have had books as a part of our relationship for as long as she has had eyes and ears. We started with my reading to her from The Real Mother Goose just days after she was born. Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and Meet Peter Rabbit followed. Advance the time machine 26 years, and she texts to me that I would enjoy The Latehomecomer: An Hmong Family Memoir by Kai Kalia Yang. She is right, of course. She knows her dad.

Laura probably came upon the story because she lives in Minneapolis, and there are many of the Hmong in the Twin Cities area. Among them are the Yangs who came, as did many other Hmong, via refugee camps in Thailand in the 1980s. The author was born in one of those camps, Ban Vinai, and was only six years when the family was transferred first to an orientation camp and then flew to Minnesota. Fear of the journey and new places, as well as the wonder of modern America, impressed themselves on her.

The Latehomecomer is as much about Yang's paternal grandmother, parents, and sister Dawb as about Yang herself and is truly a family memoir, as she tells what she has been able to learn about her maternal grandparents whom she never met. In the closing chapters, which recount her grandmother's final months and three-day funeral, she is even attentive to the reactions of her uncles and aunts. It is a remarkably close family thanks to the grandmother who held them together through the Vietnam War, the subsequent genocide, refugee camps, and the move to America (which she initially resisted.)

Published by a small nonprofit press with grant monies, The Latehomecomer has succeeded in getting into nearly 800 libraries. Even if your library does not have a copy, it should be able to get one easily. A few libraries even have it as an audiobook. I am pleased for the first time author who works with immigrants needing writing and translating. She has also made a film about Hmong Americans. I hope we hear more from her.

Yang, Kao Kalia. The Latehomecomer: An Hmong Family Memoir. Coffee House Press, 2008. 277p. ISBN 9781566892087.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests by Arnette Heidcamp

I have been at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library for over twenty years and weeded/inventoried the nature books several times. So I must have held Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests by Arnette Heidcamp several times before I plucked it from the shelf early in February. I did not recognize it. I wondered why I had not read it yet. I checked it out.

Over the years, I have read several bird rescue books, including The Bluebird Effect by Julie Zickefoose and Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson. I am always charmed and fascinated by stories in which caring people nurse injured birds back to health, whether for returning to the wild or for adoption into a human households when release is not possible. These stories usually have everything you want in good stories: tragedy, comedy, and unforgettable character (usually of the avian kind).

In her third hummingbird book, Heidcamp is the bird rescuer. She is known in her New York community and into New England for her unique calling and recalls that various members of the local police had started calls to her asking if she were "Hummingbird 911." In Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests, she takes four hummers (two ruby-throats and two rufous) into her sunroom for the duration of a winter. The little birds may be cute, but they do not get along.

Heidcamp's book is nearly 20 years old at this point, and few libraries still have it, but it does not seem dated. The color photos are remarkable, freezing the energetic birds hovering over flowers and feeders, showing their brilliant feathers, and documenting their previously unobserved interactions. It is just the kind of book a bird watcher loves.

Heidcamp, Arnette. Hummingbirds: My Winter Guests. Crown Publishers, 1997. 204p. ISBN 0517708841.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Good Ol' Freda, a documentary by Ryan White

As Freda Kelly says near the beginning of the documentary Good Ol' Freda, she has a good secretarial job in Liverpool now, but it is not as exciting as the one she had from 1962-1972. She was personal secretary to the Beatles, starting at age 17, chosen by Brian Epstein from the scores of young working women who frequented lunchtime concerts at the Cavern. She accepted without consulting her dad, who definitely did not approve of the motley lads, but she won him over to her side. She had a knack for cross-generational communications, becoming part of the glue between the Fab Four and many of their own parents. Everyone seemed to love Freda.

Kelly took her job in the months just before the Beatles became famous. Pete Best was still the drummer and the band had only a local following. She helped with the fan club and took over when its founder lost interest. Unknowing of what was about to occur, she changed the fan club address to that of her home. A few months later all of the postmen knew her house.

Kelly was interviewed often as the Beatles secretary and her letters in the fan newsletter were widely read. It was once rumored that she had married Paul McCartney, but she was mostly forgotten by the public after the Beatles split. She kept out of the limelight, especially by staying in Liverpool when the Beatles incorporated moved to London. When she disassembled the Beatles Liverpool office, she gave away many of its artifacts to fans, keeping little herself.

Viewers at our film discussion seemed charmed by her down-to-earth manner. Talk after the film veered to personal memories of Beatles days. It was fun to hear three people remember when they attended Beatles concerts at the Chicago Amphitheatre or at Comisky Park. Everyone seemed glad to have come to our program.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story by Qais Akbar Omar

In the U.S., we have seen much of what has happened in Afghanistan since 2001. Even before that Afghanistan was often front page news, but our attention was sporadic. Our country boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. We noted when the warlords of the Mujahedin pushed the Soviets out and were later themselves displaced by the Taliban. We decried human rights abuses and mourned the Taliban's destruction of the ancient Buddha statues in Banyan. But worrying about whether all our computers would crash on January 1, 2000 and about the value of our tech stocks, we lost track of Afghani news until we invaded the country in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 hijackings of American commercial aircraft by Al-Qaeda terrorists.

Qais Akbar Omar and his family never for a moment forgot what was happening in Afghanistan as they had to live every dangerous day. Omar recounts their experiences from 1991 to 2001 in A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story.

Omar was only nine years old in 1991 when the Mujahedin no longer had a common Soviet enemy to unify its ranks. Various warlords representing different ethnic groups began carving up the country and its capital Kabul, and factions began firing rockets in support of street fighting. Omar's moderately well-to-do family was forced out of the house that his grandfather had built on a hill and accept the hospitality of his father's carpet business partner in another neighborhood. Front lines of battle shifted around the city day by day for years. Omar and his father listened the BBC news in the morning to plan their daily errands.

A Fort of Nine Towers is a memoir filled with great characters, dangerous encounters, and success stories. I think it could make a riveting television mini-series. If done right, American and European viewers might get a better understanding of what happens in many countries when people are pawns to militarized governments that rule without their permission. Of course, reading will always more fulfilling than viewing a TV mini-series.

A Fort of Nine Towers has disturbing details that might turn away sensitive readers, but it is their loss if they can not overcome their reluctance to face reality. In the end, Omar's story offers both hope and caution for the future.

Omar, Qais Akbar. A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 396p. ISBN 9780374157647.


Friday, February 13, 2015

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, pictures by Hadley Hooper

In the spring of 2014, we visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and saw an exhibit of drawings and paper cuttings by Henri Matisse. At the end of the exhibit were couches, comfy chairs, and a collection of resource materials, including children's books about Matisse. I liked seeing how the illustrators of the children's books incorporated many of Matisse's designs. Now Bonnie has brought home a new children's book about Matisse with the wonderful title The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, pictures by Hadley Hooper.

The Iridescence of Birds tells the story of Matisse growing up in a dreary, gray mill town in northern France. The first two-page spread of the book shows a boy walking across a street with warm yellow in two windows being the only relief from the drab blue-gray. As readers turn the pages, the illustrator introduces more and more color, and readers learn about Matisse's mother encouraging him to paint and notice color in fruits, flowers, and locally woven fabrics. The boy also begins to raise pigeons and notices how their colors change in the sunlight.

You do not have to be a child to read The Iridescence of Birds. It is a colorful, joy-filled tribute to a man who retained his youthful wonder of nature. Enjoy the art and the story.

MacLachlan, Patricia. The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse. Roaring Brook Press, 2014. ISBN 9781596439481.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Keeper's Companion by John Mock

The Keeper's Companion sounds like the title of a book, either a novel or a collection of poetry. Instead, it is the name of the second album by musician and composer John Mock, who plays guitar, mandolin, concertina, and tin whistle in various songs on the album. While all pieces are instrumental, they are not without literary connections. In the insert to the compact disc, Mock tells a story for each of the twelve compositions. Many of the titles evoke coastal life, including "The New Chatham Hornpipe," "For Those Lost at Sea," and "The Sailor at the Fair." At just a glance, I was charmed.

I discovered that The Keeper's Companion is great music for driving. It's Celtic-like melodies are mood-altering, a positive prescription for leaving a hard day at work. Mock has a small group of players accompanying him on most of the pieces. At times, I think of the Chieftains' Irish tunes and at other times John Williams' movie music. There is also a nostalgic sound that reminds me of Ken Burns' historical documentaries.

I received the CD from Artists of Note, which books concerts, a suggestion that Mock is available for hire. I looked on Mock's website to see if he has played in our area, and I only see an appearance at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Illinois. There were a few libraries in other states (mostly to the east), and most of his venues sound small (lighthouses, cafes, and museums), but he has also played with the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra. I am sure many communities would love to hear his beautiful music.