Book Review: Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Why did I read this book?

While returning home from running errands, I listened to only ten minutes of Kerri Miller’s fifty-minute interview with Oscar Hokeah on Minnesota Public Radio, but that was long enough to be intrigued by Hokeah and his novel Calling for a Blanket Dance. When I arrived home, I ordered the book from my library through the inter-library loan program. Because a library book has a “use by date,” Hokeah’s novel landed on the pinnacle of my reading pile; and its rising to the top–like delicious cream–was richly deserved.

What is this book about?

The story focuses on Ever Geimausaddle, who is Native American and Mexican. Each chapter in the book is narrated by one of his relatives, and the last chapter is narrated by Ever. Through these family members, we watch Ever struggle as a child and an adult, and we learn about his extended family and their place in his life.

In the first chapter, Ever’s grandmother Lena Stoop introduces us to him when he is six months old. Ever and his parents, Everardo and Turtle, are returning to the United States from Mexico when they are stopped by three Mexican policemen who severely beat his father and rob his parents. Throughout the attack, Ever’s mother tries to keep him from waking. She doesn’t want him to witness the violence, but he wakes up and sees the brutality and rage.

Lena travels to a border town in Texas to pick up her daughter, son-in-law, and Ever, returning them to Oklahoma. Lena tells her daughter that she is concerned about what Ever saw. Even though he won’t remember the episode, their Native American culture teaches that babies and young children shouldn’t be exposed to violence: “They could be witched. Their spirit forever altered. A witching was almost incurable.” Lena’s daughter snaps at her mother, calling her superstitious, but then she falls silent because she, too, is worried about what her baby boy saw.

Ever’s father suffers permanent physical and emotional damage from the beating, but Ever’s mother, with the help of relatives, strives to keep her family intact. However, the memory of violence that Ever’s family experienced can’t seem to be conquered or at least forced to retreat.

What makes this book memorable?

Every time I had to put Hokeah’s novel down, I looked forward to the moment I could pick it up again. Through his masterful prose and skillful use of twelve different narrators, the reader comes to understand Ever and his family: their pain and disappointments, their hopes and dreams, their failures and successes, and their capacity for love and forgiveness.

Hokeah incorporates themes of poverty, inter-generational trauma, discrimination, marginalization, and redemption throughout the story the way an artist uses exquisite but understated brush strokes to make a painting come alive–strokes so subtle, yet so integral to the work of art, that without them, the picture would be flat and lifeless. Hokeah’s landscape of story, theme, and narration make Calling for a Blanket Dance a richly constructed novel, drawing readers in and holding them until the last page.

The Deep Valley Book Festival in Mankato, Minnesota, 2022

A Delicate Balancing Act by Kimber Fiebiger; downtown Mankato; made me think about the writer’s life

The Deep Valley Book Festival is set in Mankato, Minnesota, a charming town tucked in by rolling tree-covered hills and edged by the Minnesota and Blue Earth Rivers. This is the first book festival I’ve ever attended. My daughter-in-law and I drove down on Friday afternoon, a warm sunny day that premiered some stunning fall colors.

After we checked into the River Hills Hotel–a cozy and clean establishment with a friendly clerk–we headed to downtown Mankato for a walk then dinner. It was quiet for a Friday night, but I imagine if the Mankato Mavericks had been playing, the streets would’ve been skating with hockey fans. We had a good meal at the Pub 500. Our waitress was friendly and efficient. She carded my daughter-in-law, but she didn’t card me! Of course, that’s probably because I didn’t order a drink; otherwise, I’m sure she would have. I had a delicious fish taco.

We were back at the hotel by eight o’clock, doing what book festival attendees should be doing on Friday night–reading books. I read “The Victim,” a short story by P. D. James, recommended by my daughter-in-law. It was an engaging murder story. I handed my daughter-in-law a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest and suggested she read the first-place fiction story “Notes to the New Facilitator of the Reminiscence Writing Group at Sunnyvale Retirement Community” (p. 22) by Nancy Jesse and the first-place nonfiction essay “Mormon Girl Hair and the Styrofoam Harem” (p. 6) by Adrianna McCollum. Both of these pieces of writing are top-notch, engaging, and excellently crafted, deserving of their first-place wins, and my daughter-in-law agreed.

After that we went to bed, each of us reading a book we had brought with us. I read Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah, a wonderful novel that I’ve loved reading. You can listen to an interview with Oscar Hokeah on Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes.

On Saturday morning we arrived at the book festival just before nine o’clock, and we planned to stay until it ended at 4:30. We were motivated by the hourly drawings for books and the opportunity to hear author Curtis Sittenfeld talk about her writing.

We made sure we stopped at all the tables, sometimes briefly, other times lingering to listen to writers speak about their books, which included children’s and YA literature, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance, historical fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and poetry.

A book festival is filled with writers, but they are there to sell their books. There are no writing classes. The local library had a table, and Content, a bookstore from Northfield, Minnesota, also had a table. I noticed two publishers who were selling books by authors they represented. I asked one publisher if they were a traditional publishing house–they weren’t. The representative of the company said they like an author to put up fifty percent of the cost of publishing his or her book. I didn’t ask the other publisher about their business model.

Authors work hard at a book festival. They sit or stand for hours and talk about their books to people who look, smile, and listen, but often leave without buying a book. I bought two children’s books, two novels, and a nonfiction book. My daughter-in-law bought some books too. We plan to exchange our books with each other.

We finished touring the festival around noon. We sat and each of us started reading a book we had purchased. I read Facets of Death by Michael Stanley, a fast-paced Detective Kubu story that captured my attention, a good thing because I won another Detective Kubu story, A Carrion Death in a drawing being held by the author. My daughter-in-law read Bingo Barge Murder by Jessie Chandler, which she enjoyed, saying it was humorous.

When reading made us hungry, we left to have lunch at Applebee’s, then went for a walk. But we soon returned to the book festival to check the small white board to see if we had won any books–we hadn’t.

The book festival was held at the WOW! Zone, an interesting place for a book festival. The WOW! Zone has a bowling alley, a game arcade, and food. It was noisy, but fortunately, most of the booksellers were tucked into the restaurant that had been converted into a makeshift venue, and so the noise wasn’t too bad. We wanted to read more because we had almost two hours to pass before Curtis Sittenfeld’s talk. Seating in the WOW! Zone was limited, so we ended up at a table in the bowling ally and read to the rumble of rolling bowling balls and clattering pins. But when I’m reading a good book, background noise fades away.

By three o’clock, I was tired and we had a four-hour drive home. But I had heard Curtis Sittenfeld speak on a Zoom talk and enjoyed listening to her, so I didn’t think about cutting out early. Sittenfeld began by saying that she has done hundreds of talks all over the country, but this was her first time giving a book talk in an arcade. The audience laughed with her because we understood. Most of us had spent the whole day or part of the day at a book festival held in an arcade. Sittenfeld was kind, charming, informative, and entertaining. The hour flew by.

With our bags of books, my daughter-in-law and I headed home. We had new reading material, and we were ready for the upcoming winter.

Books I bought:

Facets of Death by Michael Stanley because after reading a paragraph, I liked the writing, so I took a chance that the story would also be good.

Tuckerbean in the Kitchen by Jill Kalz because the book festival was the same day as my grandson’s birthday. He turned six, and I think a story about dogs cooking will appeal to him. Plus the illustrations by Benton Mahan are adorable.

Temple Times: Beauty Missing, Hair Hissing, Medusa Tells All by Rebecca Fjelland Davis because my granddaughter likes stories about strong girls and women. And because a friend recently told me that Medusa has received a bad rap, and this story helps set the record straight.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld because she was there, and I wanted to have a book for her to sign. And because I’ve read American Wife by her and liked it, AND because Eligible is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, which I love and have read three times. Plus I’ve seen three different movie versions of Austen’s enduring novel.

Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Army by Rachael Hanel because I’m interested in why a person joins a cause that is violent. And because I read Hanel’s memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, and it was beautifully written. I had to pre-order Not the Camilla We Knew because the book won’t be released until December 2022.

Book Review: The Audacity of Goats (Book Two) by J. F. Riordan

Why Did I Read This Book?

I read The Audacity of Goats because I read North of the Tension Line, the first book in J. F. Riordan’s series, and loved it. If you want to read my review of the first book, click here. If you think you might like to read the first book in Riordan’s series, you may want to stop reading this because some of the information will be spoilers for the first book.

What’s this book about?

Audacity, defined as boldness, daring, courage, bravery, and fearlessness. All the characteristics people need for every day life, like how to manage a long-distance romance, how to get along with a spouse, how to fit in, how to stand your ground, how to deal with unreasonable neighbors, how to win a local election, how to tell a lie if it’s for the greater good, how to let your child grow into adulthood, how to takedown a corrupt politician, how to master a difficult pose in yoga.

In addition to its share of fog and snow, Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin, becomes shrouded in mystery. Blood-curdling screams shred the night. At first, Islanders who hear the shrieks worry someone is being hurt, but no bleeding bodies, alive or dead, are found. Some Islanders think it’s bored youth having fun, some think it’s ghosts, others think a crazed person is hiding on the Island. Curious but rather unfazed, the Islanders carry on. They’re more concerned about long winters and the upcoming local election.

Fiona Campbell reluctantly decides to run for town chairman against her conniving, nasty neighbor, Stella DeRosiers. Inhabitants who were born on the Island mostly admire Fiona but consider her an outsider. Conversely, Islanders detest Stella, but she’s one of them. Jim, the local DNR officer, is crazy about Fiona, but she’s in a relationship with Pete, whose work takes him to dangerous parts of the world.

Roger and Elizabeth return from their Italian honeymoon, and Roger worries about how to be a good husband. The Angel Joshua, advises Roger to join his yoga class, so he can get in touch with his feminine side and improve his relationship with Elizabeth. Never one to do things halfway, Roger embraces the whole downward-dog-savasana-namaste yoga scene.

Pali, full-time ferry captain and part-time poet, thinks his writing muse had departed. Not being able to write steeps him in moodiness. He contemplates giving up poetry so he can be a good husband, father, and captain, instead of a melancholy shadow in his own life.

Ten-year-old Ben, Pali and Nika’s son, has a secret he can’t share with adults because he knows they won’t understand. Ben has been taught that lying, breaking rules, and shirking one’s honor are wrong. But he’s facing circumstances that aren’t colored in black and white, so he bends his moral code.

What makes this book memorable?

Book Two is a second date that goes as well or better than an exciting first date. Riordan’s cast of memorable characters are back along with a few new ones, and their daily walks through the pages of life provide plenty of laughs, groans, gasps, and an occasional misty eye.

Riordan deftly portrays ten-year-old Ben’s coming-of-age dilemma. His predicament takes me back to my childhood and the struggle between the clarity youth and the murkiness of growing up. When Emily Martin, a new character, shows up on the page, I have fun rolling my eyes and thinking, “Oh, please, Emily, do you hear yourself?” right along with the Islanders.

The stakes for the characters in this book are small when compared to a thriller where the hero is striving to save the world, but Riordan’s use of structure and point of view create suspense around the ordinary, making The Audacity of Goats both a page turner and a meditation at the same time, all while making us smile and laugh.

What’s next?

I’ll read Book Three, Robert’s Rules of Order, followed by Book Four, A Small Earnest Question. I’m savoring these books, sipping them like a rare wine. When I finish them, I’ll miss Riordan’s captivating characters, finely woven stories, and lilting humor. However, I’m cheered because I recently learned that Book Five, Throwing Bears for George will be released on July 25, 2022.

Book Review: North of the Tension Line (Book One) by J. F. Riordan

Why did I read this book?

I listened to J. F. Riordan speak about her North of the Tension Line series via Zoom. A Small Ernest Question, the fourth book in the series, came out in August 2020, so like many authors who had books coming out during the pandemic lockdown, Riordan needed to promote her book in a new way. Instead of visiting bookstores to meet potential readers, she used Zoom to speak to them.

By the end of her talk, I had three good reasons for buying all four books in the series. One: She has a German Shepherd. I grew up with a German Shepherd—he was the smartest dog I have ever known. Two: Her stories are set in Door County, with much of the action occurring on Washington Island. When I was twelve, my father, who was a private pilot, flew our family to Washington Island for their annual Fly-In Fish Boil. And I love a good fish boil. Three: Someone in the Zoom audience said to Riordan, “You must love all this extra time to write during the lockdown.” Riordan replied, “It’s much harder to write.” She explained that being out in the world among people inspired her writing. I felt a kinship with her because I was having a hard time writing too. Her words comforted me. So, without dipping a big toe in the water to test it, I dove in and bought her books.

What is this book about?

In North of the Tension Line, Fiona Campbell, a freelance writer, has moved from Chicago to Ephraim, Wisconsin, on the Door County peninsula. Her best friend Elisabeth Wright owns an art gallery there and a lovable German Shepherd named Rocco. Roger Mason, a former physicist, owns the coffee shop in Ephraim. His lack of social finesse and his disinterest in fancy coffee drinks makes him an unlikely coffee shop owner. Elisabeth and Roger seem to like one another, but his inability to show romantic feelings makes him an unlikely partner. Fiona meets an interesting man at a wedding in Chicago, but their encounter is only a brief conversation. At least Fiona and Elisabeth have Rocco.

The women enjoy taking day trips with Rocco to Washington Island via the ferry. Fiona loves the Island but cannot imagine living there. Then she accepts a dare to spend the winter in a house that she buys on a whim. Winters are long and lonely after the tourists leave, but winter becomes the least of Fiona’s problems. Roger, worried she will be lonely, gives her a goat named Robert that is part Satan, part Einstein. Her neighbors on the Island mistakenly believe she is a hooker. A critter is living in the walls of her house. And Stella, her nearest neighbor, loathes her. But Fiona makes friends, takes care of her goat, writes articles, works on her home, and discovers the local DNR officer has feelings for her.

What makes this book memorable?

Riordan creates main characters who are charming, amusing, and intriguing. They hope and dream, taking small risks and big leaps of faith while life throws them small curves and the occasional hairpin turn. Riordan uses gentle humor, keen observation, and tightly woven story arcs to create a tale that captivates but never dips to the level of a soap opera. Her minor characters also delight. Pali, the ferryboat captain who is inspired by a ghost, writes poetry. Stella who is nasty to the insides of her bones, hates everyone. Piggy, a small dog, fiercely defends its stretch of road with a fierceness that would make Cujo shudder. Mike and Terry, regulars at Roger’s coffee shop, patiently bear witness to Roger’s shifts in behavior.

Riordan captures the flavor of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone, and people with quirks or infuriating habits cannot be avoided. People know what their neighbors are up to before the neighbors themselves even know. They know alliances will be strong and grudges will be nursed. And while they might tolerate an outsider, they will only humor a foolish outsider.

Who might like this book?

This book is about people, their individual stories, and how those stories intertwine with the stories of their friends and neighbors. If you like a book that pulls you down a gentle river with occasional rapids, a book that allows you to admire the unfolding scenery along the banks of the water without worrying about too many rough currents, climb into a canoe and travel through Riordan’s North of the Tension Line.

What’s next?

I’m currently reading The Audacity of Goats, the second book in Riordan’s series, and so far, I am loving the trip.

The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy: A Book Review

Why did I read this book?

I serve on the board of a local writing organization, and at the end of March, Brian Malloy was our featured author. I hosted the program, so I read The Year of Ice. I’m glad I volunteered to host because I loved Malloy’s book.

What is the book about?

The Year of Ice, published in 2002, is a coming-of-age story set in 1978. An arctic-like winter has descended on Minnesota’s Twin Cities where Kevin Doyle, a high school senior, is undecided about his future. He’s angry with his mother who died almost two years ago when her car slid off an ice-covered road and plunged into the Mississippi River. He and his father, Patrick, tiptoe around her death, but Kevin is his father’s protector. He foils widows and divorcées who show up at their door with casseroles and desserts for Patrick, who isn’t interested in dating. Then Kevin learns a secret about his parents’ marriage, and his threadbare relationship with his father unravels.

Kevin has his own secret. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he’s good looking and muscular. Girls swoon over him, but he’s in love with Jon Thompson, a handsome classmate. Kevin can’t tell Jon how he feels; he can’t tell anyone he’s gay. He knows people like him, but they like him as the tall, handsome, charming Kevin, a straight young man with a sense of humor and a measure of kindness.

Kevin hides the fact he’s gay by embracing an “alpha dog” routine and kicking butt if any of his male peers challenge his alpha status. When Jon gets mouthy during a football game, Kevin slaps him on the side of the head, telling us, “[I]f I smack him, nobody will guess that I want to pick him up and kiss him really hard, right on the lips. And . . . he’s got to be reminded that I’m tougher than he is. Wolves do this all the time to keep order in the pack. I’m the alpha; he’s the beta.” Kevin attempts to keep order in his life, but everything is changing.

What is noteworthy about the story?

Malloy’s masterful use of present-tense, first-person narrative hooked me on the first page and held me until the end. I read the book in less than two days. Malloy creates a complex, engaging character who comes to life. Kevin reminds me of the teenagers I went to high school with—myself included. He’s moody and funny and a smart ass, and he hides his problems and feelings. He makes some mistakes, but I like him and empathize with him as he copes with his dysfunctional family, his unrequited love for Jon, and the girlfriend he doesn’t desire. Malloy’s supporting characters are unique and fully developed and, in addition to being part of Kevin’s world, have their own intriguing story arcs.

The Year of Ice won an Alex Award in 2003. Awarded by the American Library Association, this award is given every year to ten books that were written for adults but appeal to young adult audiences between twelve and eighteen years of age.

Why is this book important?

Malloy’s book is a classic coming of age story where the main character happens to be gay. Blatant discrimination and hateful behavior toward the LBGTQ community has increased the in last several years. Some people lobby to ban books like Malloy’s from school libraries, but the need to stand up for books like The Year of Ice is important. All young people need to see themselves in the world around them and to know that someone speaks to their experiences. It’s why coming of age stories are so important to us, often at any stage of our lives. Kevin Doyle shares his ups and downs and his hopes and disappointments with us, and we care about him. We want him to find his way, be true to who he is, and to have a good life.

Reasons to Attend an Author’s Book Chat (Even If You Don’t Write Books)

My terminal to the World

If you’re writing a book, and even if you’re not, you should listen to authors talk about their books. I’m not writing a book, at least not yet, and maybe never. But when the COVID lockdowns started, I discovered I liked attending virtual author chats and book launches. Over the last two years, I’ve listened to over twenty authors discuss their books, and I’ve noticed some reoccurring themes and ideas.

Writing is Tough

All writers have moments of doubt. One author almost gave up but decided the only way she could fail was to not finish her novel. Others talked about a manuscript they considered a learning experience then buried it in a drawer. Some took a break from a book they were writing before finishing it. All of them said, “Just keep writing.”

When the pandemic lockdowns started, many writers talked about feeling too anxious to write. When I heard a published author admit this, I realized my anxiousness and inability to sit at my desk and write was normal. I stopped thinking something was wrong with me. Another author found it difficult to write because she wasn’t out in the world, watching and listening to people, gathering material to take back to her desk. I could relate. I never appreciated how much inspiration I brought home, until I didn’t leave home.

When a member of the audience thought things must have gotten easier after a writer published a book, the author said, each book was like starting over and her second book was tougher to write. Hot dog! I write short stories and essays, and I find the same to be true. If published writers flounder occasionally, why wouldn’t I struggle at times?

Writing Takes Work

But take chances. Experiment. Play. Listen to your characters. If something doesn’t work, revise.

Read, read, and reread. Most authors talked about the importance of reading books from the genre they write in. And rereading those books helped them analyze how they were put together.

Research is important, even when writing novels or memoirs. One historical nonfiction writer spent almost a month living on a sixty-foot sailboat in the Arctic in order to research the setting for her book. It gave her confidence to write her book because she had knowledge and experience.

Once the manuscript is done, the revising and editing starts. Get feedback from writers and beta readers. Be open to suggestions, but know when to trust your work. Many authors said revising was as much or more work than writing the book.

Getting Published

Work on building a writing resume by submitting short pieces of writing. Polish them until they’re shiny, beautiful baubles. And submit! One author submitted a story to a university journal, and they loved it so much they asked her if she had more stories like it. She did, and they published a book of her short stories. (This makes me think about Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a soda at a malt shop.)

Hire a good line editor before you submit to agents or publishers. Make sure the manuscript is as good and as error free as it can be. Learn how to write a query letter. Some authors shared helpful resources.

Potential agents and publishers want authors to have a social media presence and a website, even if it’s simple. One author attended an online pitch event on Twitter with agents. A publisher liked her pitch, asked to see her manuscript, then published her book.

Fight for your work. Sometimes an editor is right. One author talked about cutting a chapter from her memoir. Even though she wanted to keep it, she understood the editor’s point. Other times the author is right. Another author fought to keep the opening dream scene in her book, and the editor eventually agreed.

Understand a contract before signing it. Think about hiring an attorney who specializes in publishing contracts. One author warned, “Don’t let excitement about a contract cloud your judgement.”

So, Sign Up for an Author’s Book Chat

You’ll learn what worked and didn’t work for authors, and some of that wisdom will be useful to you. When writers talk about their struggles, it’ll give you perspective about your struggles. As they celebrate their newly published books, you’ll believe that someday you’ll celebrate yours. Finally, almost every author chat and book launch that I’ve attended had a Q & A, and the author answered questions about his or her journey to publication. But best of all, for an hour or two, you’ll be part of a community of people who love to write.


[Looking for a Book Chat? Lake Superior Writers hosts a series called Book Club for Writers, which is free and open to members and nonmembers. Our next author will be Brian Malloy who will talk about his book The Year of Ice on March 29, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. For more information: Book Club for Writers.]

Something I’m Reading This Week

The Radium Girls (2016) by Kate Moore

I ordered my copy from Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

I’m on page 200 of 403. This well-researched nonfiction book tells the story of the young women who started working in radium-dial factories just before WWI. Glow-in-the-dark products were gaining popularity, and WWI would significantly increase the demand for them. The dial painters were taught to point the bristles of their brushes with their tongues–called lip pointing–in order to paint fine lines. Supervisors told the painters there was so little radium in the paint that it was harmless.

As factory owners and managers learned that traces of radium weren’t harmless, they hid that information from the dial painters because lip pointing was an efficient, inexpensive method for painting dials, and because they didn’t want workers to become fearful and quit. About five years after the dial painters began ingesting radium, they started suffering painful side effects which were fatal. After the consequences of radium paint became known and proved, companies who employed dial painters kept denying that the radium was dangerous.

One of the women harmed by the radium, found a lawyer who agreed to represent her and some of the other sick women. The companies used high-powered attorneys, lies, and rumors to try and thwart the sick women from winning their lawsuits. Moore skillfully captures the twists and turns of the legal battle between the radium-dial companies and the women who sought compensation. I don’t know how their legal battle ends yet, but I’m rooting for the women.

As I read Moore’s book, I care about the young women, who never grew old. I care about the families they left behind. I want the companies and their executives to be held accountable for their cold indifference to the lives of these women. As I read this story, it strikes me that not much has changed. The story of the women harmed by the profit-minded radium dial companies is the kind of story that still happens today, both in our country and throughout the world.

Stories like The Radium Girls are important because companies still lobby for fewer regulations and for changes to laws that make it more difficult for a harmed person to sue. Without regulatory laws or the ability to sue bad actors in a court of law, people are left to the mercy of those who value their company’s bottom line above all else. The Radium Girls reminds us that we need laws to hold companies liable for their actions.

Every evening I look forward to ignoring the TV and reading The Radium Girls. Moore’s writing is excellent. I’m thankful she told the story of the doomed women who started out loving their jobs and believed their companies were wonderful places to work. We can honor the radium girls by remembering them and by valuing the lives of all workers.

[If you’re interested in hearing Kate Moore talk about The Radium Girls and her newest book, The Woman They Could Not Silence (2021) Click here: Honest Dog Books.]

Litter Critters Redux

Reading the new Little Critter books

My mother carried the first Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer into our house. She loved Mayer’s stories and drawings, and she thought Just Go to Bed was hysterical. By the time my second son was four years old, we had eighteen Little Critter books.

Last week my grandson Evan, five, discovered Little Critter books are filled with humorous illustrations. After looking at the pictures in one of the books, he handed it to me and said, “Can you read this to me? It’s funny.”

While I read the book, Evan discovered irony. He laughed at the words Little Critter said and pointed out that Critter’s words didn’t match what he was doing in the pictures. “These are really funny books,” he said. I admired his ability to grasp the gap between what was being said and what was happening. So much of life is like that, and it’s not always amusing.

Evan enjoyed the books even more when I told him that most of them had belonged to his dad when he was a little boy, and a few of them had belonged to his uncle. Now, before I can read one of the stories to him, he asks who the book belonged to, his dad or his uncle. Most of the books have an inscription with a name and date on the inside cover. But some don’t, and it makes me sad that I forgot to inscribe on them.

After reading all eighteen Little Critter books to my grandsons in a marathon session, Evan asked if more books had been written. We did some research, and bought Just Fishing with Grandma (2003), Just a Little Music (2010), What a Bad Dream (1992), and Grandma, Grandpa, and Me (2007).

Minutes after the mail carrier delivered the books, my grandsons each grabbed two and scampered up on the couch. Evan looked at each book, silently studying each page. Charlie looked at each book, voicing his own dialogue for each picture.

I thought about my boys when they were young and how they loved new books. I remembered reading to each of them every night before went to bed.

After my grandsons finished previewing the new books, I read to them. Evan pointed out Little Critter’s small ironies. Charlie looked at one of the other books, while I read. He always feels the need to “read” a different book while I’m reading to him.

When I finished reading the books, I inscribed their names and February 2022 on the inside of each cover.

Book Review: Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

In the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been reading about pandemics. How depressing, you think! Not really. It’s more comforting than you might imagine. Most of the pandemics I’ve read about were worse than COVID-19, and I don’t say that to make light of COVID. It’s killed many people, caused long-term health issues, and disrupted lives and the economy, but it can’t compare to the Black Death or the Great Influenza of 1918.

My great-grandfather Frank died of TB in 1910.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a well-written sampling of killer pandemics. Her book covers the Antonine, bubonic, and dancing plagues, plus smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera, leprosy, typhoid, the Spanish flu (Great Influenza of 1918), encephalitis lethargica, lobotomies, and polio. She describes the diseases and how they killed people, but doesn’t dwell on the grotesque. Instead, she focuses on the development of medical treatments and the people who worked to end plagues and pandemics. She writes with a gentle humor that helps readers digest what is a formidable list of population-depleting diseases. Fortunately, most of them have been mitigated by cures, treatments, or vaccines.

My great-grandfather Joseph, in the vest and tie, died of typhoid fever in 1922.

Wright’s book provides historical perspective. The bubonic plague killed quickly and painfully, wiping out tens of millions of people in the 14th Century. Worldwide death estimates from the Great Influenza of 1918 range between 25 million and 100 million (p. 197). It, too, killed quickly, especially people in their twenties. And horrifically, smallpox wiped out entire civilizations in the New World. Those statistics provide some comfort when compared to COVID statistics. Modern medicine is another comfort. Medical scientists have been able to develop working vaccines and helpful medicines in a short time to help combat COVID deaths.

Also, the historical details Wright’s book provides can—strangely enough—be a soothing balm. Some of what people are doing and saying about COVID seems tame in comparison to behavior during past pandemics. Some suggested “preventatives” against the bubonic plague were to eat crushed emeralds, live in a sewer, avoid bad smells, place chopped onions in your house, drink your urine, and don’t look at sick people (Wright p. 29-30). Among the many bizarre and useless cures for the bubonic plague were bloodletting and poultices made with feces (p. 40). Often prescribed treatments made people suffer more. In defense of people from the past, medical science wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and people were desperate during frightening times, like they sometimes are today.

Wright’s chapter on tuberculosis was scary. I was in the camp of people who thought that tuberculosis was mostly a disease of the past. It’s not. Tuberculosis kills 1.3 million (Wright, p. 125) to 1.5 million (CDC) lives a year. Most of the cases of TB occur in countries outside of wealthy nations like the United States. But mutations in the TB bacteria make it more resistant to drugs, and when people with TB travel, they spread the disease. “Recent models show that unless we scale up efforts to address this growing threat, the number of people dying from drug-resistant TB will nearly double every 5 years” (CDC). There’s also the wise adage: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We need to pay attention.

In her epilogue, Wright discusses the AIDS epidemic. She didn’t give AIDS its own chapter because she feels there are people who lived through the AIDS epidemic who could tell the story better than she can. However, she wrote eight pages about AIDS, explaining how the epidemic was mishandled and how prejudice against gays made the epidemic worse. I believe she could tell the story of AIDS and make it as engaging and enlightening as the other epidemics she wrote about. And if she did, I would read that book.

Where Do I Go When I Need Solitude?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 27, 2022.]

I hide in a book.

I’ve been doing it all my life.

I’m an introvert; I enjoy the solitude of a story coming off the page just for me.

In grade school I hid in Nancy Drew mysteries and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators and every biography in our school library. I read when I was supposed to be doing classwork. I read to keep my head down. I read to escape the everyday noise of a house filled with family. I read on long car rides to make the time pass. I read because people usually left me alone when I did.

In high school I read for all the same reasons. But my reading material graduated.

When I was nineteen, I worked in downtown Milwaukee. There are a lot of people in downtown Milwaukee. On my lunch break, I read while walking down Wisconsin Avenue. I fell in sync with the crowds on the sidewalk, moving and stopping with them, waiting for red lights and green lights, but rarely looking up. Solitude in a collective.

I read when I went to hockey games, before the ref dropped the puck and between periods. There are a lot of people in a hockey rink.

I read when I got on a plane, right after I buckled my seatbelt. There are a lot of people in an airplane. I put my head in a book and didn’t stop until after the plane taxied to the gate, and it was my turn to exit.

When I’m tired and don’t want to talk, I read.

When I’m upset or sad or discouraged, I read. Words and sentences and the rhythm of story pull me in and shut the world out. When it works right, it’s a mediation in solitude, even in a crowd.

I carry a purse that’s large enough to carry a hardback book, if needed. Solitude in a bag.