Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Woman's Place by Lynn Austin ~ my review

With only about a hundred pages to go in A Woman’s Place, I felt eager for final developments in the lives of Ginny, Rosa, Helen, and Jean, so I read faster. Then I dreaded no longer being in their lives, so I read slower. Then faster. Then I hoped maybe Lynn Austin had written a sequel.


Austin’s engaging historical novel begins in December 1941 and ends in October 1944. Ginny, Rosa, Helen, and Jean, who have very different personalities and life situations, join the war effort by working as electricians in a shipbuilding plant. Their reasons are varied and both altruistic and personal.


As their home lives unfold, and as they support each other in the face of opposition to their working, they become friends. This novel contains some romantic hopes and struggles and some spiritual seeking. Again, all four women are at completely different places with their dreams and faith, but Austin weaves these relationships into a rich tapestry.


Also interesting to me was the taste of what life was like here at home during World War II. Economizing and rationing, of course, but societal attitudes toward women, women working, even women driving, and prejudice against Blacks—those were difficult, painful years. Not every soldier came home from the war.


Another aspect of A Woman’s Place that drew me in was the exploration of motives. Real-life conflicts involving rebellion, anger, compliance, suspicion, stubbornness, and fear often begin with misunderstanding motives but ultimately lead to softening of hearts and acting with honor, courage, and love. Not every conflict gets resolved—we still have discrimination, for example, and some losses are irretrievable—but Austin satisfactorily wraps up the wartime stories of Ginny, Rosa, Helen, and Jean. 


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Vacation Double-Takes

 What? A wind strong enough to blow the ice cream right out of my cup did not blow the humidity out of town?

I saw a woman stride down the sidewalk with her rather large dog under her arm like a furry rolled-up beach towel. Nearby, a party of five adults padded in baby steps to match the pace of their miniscule dog whose short legs could only inch this entourage along.


Cars cruising by playing loud music annoy me at home, but in my favorite Michigan beach town, this cacophony is all part of the happy, free-wheeling, vacation vibe. The kids play such fun, energetic music; that thumping beat makes me feel young again. So, whizzing down the highway to get to my happy place, I played an old Putumayo music cassette tape, “The Best of World Music.” I loved that tape and hadn’t heard it in decades. As I bounced to the beats in my car like a fool, I thought, Hey, when I get to town, why don’t I roll down the window, crank up the volume, and share this cool, fun music with everyone? If teens can do it, so can I! Just as I roll down the window, the tape drags in slo-mo, just like senior citizens do. Hilarious timing!


My tape acting its age forced me to act my age. Back at the hotel, I washed out my masks and clipped them up to dry by the fireplace. Made myself a cup of decaf tea, worked a crossword puzzle, read a book, all in slo-mo, just like the old folks. Still a day full of smiles.


Monday, May 17, 2021

My review of The Listening Path and Laziness Does Not Exist

Julia Cameron’s The Listening Path suggests simple habits that could transform a life in many positive ways. Subtitled The Creative Art of Attention, the book encourages us to slow down to intentionally listen, and to schedule solo “artist dates” and walks to practice becoming more observant of our surroundings. Cameron believes these habits will enrich our relationships, our joy, and our creativity. The foundational habit that frees our mind to be more fully present to life is what she calls “morning pages.”


Morning pages are simply private, stream-of-consciousness, handwritten thoughts, worries, gratitude, prayers—whatever is on your mind. As you write, you may see a solution you hadn’t seen before, or discover a deep-seated dream for your life, or get more in touch with what you’re thankful for. At the very least, writing morning pages clears your mind for greater attentiveness.


Cameron’s The Listening Path is a series of anecdotes illustrating the habits and people’s transformative results, so the principles that make the habits effective read like an interesting story. I’ve begun the habits she suggests and find a new energy to life. She calls this “a six-week Artist’s Way program," and she’s laid out what to practice listening to each of the six weeks: our environment, others, our higher self, beyond the veil, our heroes, and silence.


Besides the habits themselves, I found Cameron’s frequent sidebar suggestions immensely helpful. Her sidebars, entitled: Try This, are specific assignments. Even if you practiced only one of her forty-plus sidebar challenges, you’d grow as a person.


I just happened to borrow Laziness Does Not Exist from the library while I was reading The Listening Path, which turned out to be serendipitous timing. Social psychologist Dr. Devon Price rethinks our society’s negative connotations of laziness by pointing out that periods of mental inactivity are necessary to solve problems, create, gain insights, heal, prioritize tasks, get in touch with our feelings, and so forth. Price includes charts, and I love charts. My favorites in this book are “Mental Habits That ‘Dampen’ Happiness” [page 117] and “Mental Habits That Help Us Savor Happiness.” [page 119] And Price suggests awe-inspiring activities that would fit right in with Julia Cameron’s “Try This” assignments.


Sadly, I will not have time to read Laziness Does Not Exist in its entirety at this time, but I can see that this book offers scientifically based permission to free yourself from counterproductive cultural work, relationship, and personal expectations. Let's hear it for downtime!


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Blue Moon

 When Scarlet Leaf Review accepted my flash (< 1,000 words) fiction piece for publication last summer, I eagerly awaited the issue they said it would appear in. I never found it, perhaps because this technoweenie couldn't figure out their website. Then I forgot about it. So, happy surprise today when I discovered my little story in their online literary magazine. You can read it here, if you'd like: Blue Moon by Jane Hoppe

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Gate

 I love big water. Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the Atlantic … if I’m even vaguely close, I’ll make the effort to get there and stand in awe of its shimmering foreverness. The other day I could take the quickest route home, or meander a bit just to get a glimpse of Lake Michigan. Approaching Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, I saw Big Blue in the distance, and my heart did a happy dance.


Then I noticed this gate. I laughed. The park is for hikers, so if you’re on foot, you just walk around the big bad gate and head to the lake. Duh-uh. Of course the gate is to bar cars from going farther in that spot, but I got to thinking about gates we can easily walk around, like the proverbial unlocked jail cell we sometimes sit inside.


For me, one thing that’s been on the other side of that gate for about fifty years is eating alone in a nice restaurant. I was afraid of embarrassment and boredom. Just two years ago, I discovered solo fine dining is neither. Just skipped right around that ol’ gate—finally. What gates are you facing?


Sometimes getting around the gate requires baby steps. I’ve chosen to form some new habits, so although I feel like I’m slo-mo crawling around the gate, I sense progress. It might only be a couple more weeks till I’ll be far enough along to stand back up and see Big Blue’s whitecaps.


Some horizon-expanding gates are things remaining on a bucket list: to kayak, to live in France, to find an agent for a book. Some gates are goals: to organize records, to list family heirlooms, to research ancestors’ stories. When I feel overwhelmed by any daunting dream, I will try to think of it as just a gate I can walk around.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Paris LibraryJanet Skeslien Charles’ novel, The Paris Library, tells of the life of Odile in Paris, 1939–44, and in Montana, 1983–88, where we see how wartime experiences shaped her into the wise woman who befriended lonely teen, Lily. During the Nazi Occupation, Odile worked in the American Library in Paris (ALP), where she bravely saved books and defended Jews from destruction. Forty years later, nurturing and encouraging Lily during her tumultuous high school years, she “saved” Lily. This novel is an uplifting story.

The Paris Library, a work of historical fiction, interested me on several levels. I am a Francophile who hungers for stories of the French RĂ©sistance during World War II. So, entering Odile’s Parisian life appealed to me, and I felt great admiration for everyday sacrifices (rutabagas, anyone?) of Odile, her family, and coworkers. Letters from her soldier brother from the Eastern front and then from a prison camp showed his realities. Glimpses into Odile’s police chief father’s job showed Nazi-ordered changes in his duties. Forty years later, when Odile teaches French to her young Montana neighbor, Lily eats it up like a sucrerie (sweet), and so did I.


I’m also a bibliophile, so I identified with Odile’s and her coworkers’ shared passion for reading. Their name-dropping of titles piqued my curiosity, too. The American Library in Paris employees not only kept the library open but also heroically delivered books to troops and Jews for solace, comfort, escape, mental privacy, edification. Librarians are considered “part psychologist, bartender, bouncer, and detective.” [page 249] Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Library Book, also offering insights into libraries’ many functions, underscores this wide scope of librarian roles. Both books give surprising examples of patrons’ actual inquiries.


Last, but certainly not least, The Paris Library is an honest human story. Young Odile and Lily are smart, feisty young women feeling their way into adulthood. They test their parents’ limits, learn to appreciate their parents’ protective instincts, learn to accept responsibility, learn whom to invest their love in, and whom to not waste hope on. Both girls are sensitively observant of human nature. Their crushes, insecurities, and questions are simply real and quite relatable. Another parallel between the two women is that they both benefited from mentoring by mature women, Lily by middle-aged Odile, and young Odile by the ALP’s directress.


Finally, Charles’ writing is lovely, from the symbolism of crows and pearls/nooses to apt descriptions like “a crane wearing a paisley bow tie,” to picturesque similes like brows raised, “curled like question marks” [page 264], and metaphors, such as Lily’s rebellious thought about her dad’s not letting her get her learner’s permit to drive as she’s about to rebelliously snoop in Odile’s closet: “I wanted to tell him he couldn’t keep me hermetically sealed in this house forever. Mary Louise had taught me to drive on the dirt road that led to the dump. It wasn’t that hard.” [page 260]


Upon finishing this book, I remained curious about the fates of several characters, but my questions do not qualify as loose ends in the plot. Perhaps I would just like to be invited in to the main characters’ future lives. Sequel, Ms. Charles? In The Paris Library, love triumphs over evil, not in a syrupy way, rather more in the way most people hope love will win when you do the right things for the right reasons in difficult circumstances.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Library Book by Susan Orlean ~ my review

 With the central theme of carefully researched facts about the disastrous April 29, 1986, fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, Susan Orlean presents colorful, eclectic stories about that library’s history and libraries in general. At the time, news of the fire went largely unnoticed, eclipsed by news of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which had happened just three days before. Orlean writes The Library Book as homage to libraries everywhere.


The curious thread of the arson investigation kept me intrigued, as if reading a mystery novel. Complicating the inquiry and trial was the only provable fact: Harry Peak, the alleged arsonist, was a pathological liar. Orlean’s interviews with Peak’s family, friends, colleagues, fire department officials, and library workers on duty the day of the fire are fascinating.


Orlean includes details of the cleanup and emotions felt by some library staff. One librarian, Jill Crane, wrote a poem that began: “We held charred and watersoaked chunks of books in our hands. History, imagination, knowledge crumbling in our fingers. We packed what was left.”


A number of Orlean’s library-related rabbit trails touched me, but none so much as the timeless importance of books. I could read pages 92 and 93 again and again. She speaks tenderly of the love-of-libraries connection she had with her mother whose dementia now prevents her from sharing those memories with her daughter. Books can set bleakness and chaos in order and harmony. We take our memories with us when we die—unless they are written down. “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.” Because of books, “You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose …”


Orlean’s other rabbit trails include history of Carnegie libraries, gender bias in library administration, and the office politics victories of flamboyant Charles Lummis at the turn of the century. The Library Book also includes interesting tidbits about the wide, surprising range of patrons’ reference-desk questions, and librarians’ duties, including refereeing chess and checkers games.