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Viewing Blog: Chasing Ray, Most Recent at Top
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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. A stunning documentary: “New Year Baby”


The other night I downloaded and watched New Year Baby, Socheata Poeuv’s documentary about uncovering her family’s story in Cambodia. This movie…..this movie is something amazing.

Poeuv was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. She was called the “lucky one” as her parents, two sisters and brother were all subjected to life under the genocidal government and lived in labor camps until the country was liberated by the Vietnamese. Eventually, they all emigrated to the US and settled in Texas.

As she explains in the movie’s opening minutes, when she was twenty-five Poeuv went home for Christmas and her mother gathered the family together to reveal to their youngest child the big secret about how they were all really related. Her parents then decided to travel to Cambodia for a visit and Poeuv and her brother joined them with camera crew in tow. The trip became a way for Poeuv to learn about what happened to extended family members in the four years under the regime, how many relatives they lost* and how they were all able to get out of the country.

This is all incredibly emotional and inspiring (you will cry, trust me), but equally fascinating is the story of how Cambodians have buried their history in an almost national attempt to forget what happened. None of them can forget though (of course) so the official Cambodia versus the personal one are locked in a quiet and continuous battle of “let’s just not talk about it.” This is made brutally clear in the film when Poeuv’s local guide unexpectedly comes face to face with the former member of the Khmer Rouge who ran the hospital where his mother and sister died. He can not stop himself from asking what happened and his face as her utter incompetence comes through….well, his face is pretty unforgettable.

After making the movie, Socheata Poeuv founded an organization called Khmer Legacies which collects testimonies, stored at Yale University, from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. The project is set up to help preserve Cambodian history, a critical need. From the website:

…there has been no collective outlet to remember and heal for ordinary Cambodians. In fact, in Cambodia today, the history is often not taught in schools and some in the younger generation grow up believing that the genocide did not happen at all.

New Year’s Baby
is family history at its best; not only did the film maker learn her family’s own true story but she is now working to preserve an entire nation’s. We all should accomplish so much in our lifetimes. I can’t recommend this film enough.

*Approximately two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge.

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2. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings

There are few things in life as delightful as a perfect picture book. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings is especially delightful, a perfect combination of subject and illustration that includes a design that works with the playful nature of the poet’s words.

There is a lot going on here, (with plenty of shout outs to interesting people and places), as author Matthew Burgess covers his subject’s life. He focuses a lot on Cummings’ childhood, education and lifelong love of words while illustrator Kris Di Giacomo presents those words as leaping off the page along with subtle washed backgrounds that keep E.E. (Edward Estlin) and his words as the center of the action.

All in all it’s a lovely thing to see and quite inviting. Take a peek at this inside spread:

There are a couple of particularly interesting points from Cummings’s life presented here such as the fact that his most influential teacher was also the first African-American principal in New England and he was mistaken for a spy while working as an ambulance driver during WW1. (He later wrote about this in The Enormous Room.)

But mostly the author focuses on how much Cummings loved words from the earliest age (dictating his first poem at age 3) and how he liked to play with words on the page so their appearance could make them sound (or read) differently. As Burgess explains this, Di Giacomo shows it, bringing the poet’s method home to even young readers.

Enormous Smallness is a truly lovely book and one that I think is going to find its way onto several award lists. It’s due out next month; be sure to get it on your radars.

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3. The Center of Things

From Jenny McPhee's novel about a tabloid reporter (Marie) who is given the assignment of a lifetime--to prepare the obituary for dying film star Nora Mars, someone Marie has idolized her entire life:

Marie's excitement, however, was accompanied by an equally charged sense of dread. If she wrote the article, using a story that might well not be true, she would effectively transform a national female icon into a megalomaniacal baby killer. She imagined Brewster winking a Morse code message: "How bad do you want it, Marie?" What was "it"? she asked herself. Fame, fortune, immortality, or simply a decent raise and a promotion after ten years on the job?

As Marie tracks the mysteries behind Nora's tangled life, she is forced time and again to decide what matters in a life story, what is the right story to tell, and whose story is the one that is true. At the same time she is deeply involved in mysteries about her own life and missing her long estranged brother and completing a philosophy of science paper she has been working on for fifteen years, ever since she left graduate school.

Basically, Marie is a bit of a hot mess in several ways, but a very smart mess who realizes she is at a personal fork in the road that Nora Mars has just happened to drop down into through virtue of her impending death.

None of this sounds like a lot to make a book around and yet again (this is the second time I've read it), I really enjoyed the heck out of The Center of Things. There is a lot of old movie trivia (which I love) and a lot of general science talk (also love) and time spent in a library, natural history museum, Impala convertible, and at a desk, writing furiously. There is also a family mystery which never gets old, some investigative reporting (shades of Lois Lane!) and the brainiest romance I have ever come across in fiction.

Find a copy if you can, this one is a treat.

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4. The Center of Things

From Jenny McPhee’s novel about a tabloid reporter (Marie) who is given the assignment of a lifetime–to prepare the obituary for dying film star Nora Mars, someone Marie has idolized her entire life:

Marie’s excitement, however, was accompanied by an equally charged sense of dread. If she wrote the article, using a story that might well not be true, she would effectively transform a national female icon into a megalomaniacal baby killer. She imagined Brewster winking a Morse code message: “How bad do you want it, Marie?” What was “it”? she asked herself. Fame, fortune, immortality, or simply a decent raise and a promotion after ten years on the job?

As Marie tracks the mysteries behind Nora’s tangled life, she is forced time and again to decide what matters in a life story, what is the right story to tell, and whose story is the one that is true. At the same time she is deeply involved in mysteries about her own life and missing her long estranged brother and completing a philosophy of science paper she has been working on for fifteen years, ever since she left graduate school.

Basically, Marie is a bit of a hot mess in several ways, but a very smart mess who realizes she is at a personal fork in the road that Nora Mars has just happened to drop down into through virtue of her impending death.

None of this sounds like a lot to make a book around and yet again (this is the second time I’ve read it), I really enjoyed the heck out of The Center of Things. There is a lot of old movie trivia (which I love) and a lot of general science talk (also love) and time spent in a library, natural history museum, Impala convertible, and at a desk, writing furiously. There is also a family mystery which never gets old, some investigative reporting (shades of Lois Lane!) and the brainiest romance I have ever come across in fiction.

Find a copy if you can, this one is a treat.

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5. Assessing February on the Resolution Scale

mine.jpg

We're through February so here's a belated look at how I did keeping my work resolutions for the year.

1. Reviewed two books for Booklist, one on the Iraq War and one on how income inequality in the U.S. affects children. This was a slower month but after January (where I reviewed 8), it was welcome.

2. No books read for Locus, but did submit the list for the next several months, made several requests and received a couple of books.

3. Six articles in the Bush Pilot blog including one on winter survival that generated some angry comments but is something I'm rather proud of.

4. The essay I submitted was rejected with a form letter response. I think there is another way to write it that would improve it and I think I got too personal. I'm not crushed by this rejection at all; mostly I'm just happy that I wrote it and submitted it all in one month.

5. I wrote a piece on a science series for teens that I've been trying to place. I sent out some queries to lit sites that have gotten me nowhere (I wrote about this last week), so now I'm trying to send it out to science sites which might end up being a much better fit anyway.

6. Conducted a couple of interviews I needed to do for some Alaska work and sent out a list of questions for some other pieces I have planned. All of that is in the works this month.

7. Did a ton of research on places to submit too. In a lot of ways this is the toughest part of writing (maybe even harder than writing itself). Now I know what I'm writing and where I'm sending out to (first try, second try, third try), which makes me feel like I'm in a lot more control of my writing life.

February was okay for me. I didn't make a big strides forward, but didn't fall back either. One lapse was my failure to get the Alaskan profile done that I planned to write. I don't know how I failed on that one. March has been better - I'm only halfway through but I think it's going to be a more successful month for me which is important.

Now, I just need to get my photo albums back on track......

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6. Assessing February on the Resolution Scale

mine.jpg

We’re through February so here’s a belated look at how I did keeping my work resolutions for the year.

1. Reviewed two books for Booklist, one on the Iraq War and one on how income inequality in the U.S. affects children. This was a slower month but after January (where I reviewed 8), it was welcome.

2. No books read for Locus, but did submit the list for the next several months, made several requests and received a couple of books.

3. Six articles in the Bush Pilot blog including one on winter survival that generated some angry comments but is something I’m rather proud of.

4. The essay I submitted was rejected with a form letter response. I think there is another way to write it that would improve it and I think I got too personal. I’m not crushed by this rejection at all; mostly I’m just happy that I wrote it and submitted it all in one month.

5. I wrote a piece on a science series for teens that I’ve been trying to place. I sent out some queries to lit sites that have gotten me nowhere (I wrote about this last week), so now I’m trying to send it out to science sites which might end up being a much better fit anyway.

6. Conducted a couple of interviews I needed to do for some Alaska work and sent out a list of questions for some other pieces I have planned. All of that is in the works this month.

7. Did a ton of research on places to submit too. In a lot of ways this is the toughest part of writing (maybe even harder than writing itself). Now I know what I’m writing and where I’m sending out to (first try, second try, third try), which makes me feel like I’m in a lot more control of my writing life.

February was okay for me. I didn’t make a big strides forward, but didn’t fall back either. One lapse was my failure to get the Alaskan profile done that I planned to write. I don’t know how I failed on that one. March has been better – I’m only halfway through but I think it’s going to be a more successful month for me which is important.

Now, I just need to get my photo albums back on track……

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7. Literary web sites, YA books & snobbery

While attending a large literary conference last year I approached a table for a popular lit site* and asked to speak with someone about submitting reviews. I was pointed in the direction of a nearby friendly editor who I introduced myself to and explained that I was a reviewer for Booklist and also the longtime YA columnist for Bookslut. "I would like to submit a review of some YA books with crossover appeal to your site," I explained, "and wondered if there was a specific person to whom I should direct my email."

"Oh, we don't run any teen book reviews," she replied. "Our readers aren't interested in those books. You can always submit to our general site email though and take a chance. Thanks for stopping by!"

And then she turned her back and starting speaking to someone else and I realized I was having one of those moments where someone dismisses you in a way that is acceptably rude but certainly feels lousy.

In the months after that interaction, I spent some time looking for lit sites that might be open to new YA submissions. I was picked up by LARB for a piece last fall and am now doing regular reviews for Locus (in print). Last month I finished a piece I've been wanting to write for a while about a YA series of NF science books though and emailed a query letter to another big lit site. The response was very polite, the editor was actually interested in the books for his kids, but again I was told that their readers are not interested in "these kinds of books". And that's when I got serious about seeing just what kind of books lit sites are reviewing.

There have been a zillion articles written about whether or not adults read YA; enough of them that I don't need to tackle that subject again. One thing no one does dispute is that people who visit lit sites are book readers and book lovers and while there have been no big surveys about whether or not these folks have children, I think it is safe to assume that a decent sized segment of the reading population are in fact parents and probably inclined to buy books for their kids.

I don't think I'm going far out on a limb when I suggest that perhaps these parents might want to know about a great book every now and again that might be enjoyed by their kids (or their nieces, nephews, cousins, godchildren or other young people in their lives). The assumption that appears to be widely made by the lit sites however is that their readers would prefer to find those type of book reviews (and the books themselves) elsewhere. I have no idea why they have come to this conclusion.

I suppose some site administrators do survey the specific post stats and can say that a YA book review receives fewer visitors than a comparable adult literary review. But honestly, that kind of analysis doesn't really impress me much as a reader. Stats can be driven by so many strange things (like controversy) and quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

In other words, 1,000 people might blow through a post, not read past the first few paragraphs and never think of the book again while 200 readers might read another post and all go out and buy the book or check it out from the library or mention it on social media. It's really tough to quantify the value of one visitor over another.

None of that is the point though as I don't think that potential stats are what drive the decision for lit sites to pass on YA book reviews. I think it is a lot more about not wanting to be perceived as a teen site or be associated with people who read or want or care about teen books. Lit sites want to be about certain books and the people who they think read those and all the rest, well, those are books for other kinds of readers.

Yeah, this is that dismissive part again.

While I am not a fan of casting a derisive eye on genre reading either, (I love a good fantasy, mystery or romance as much as anyone), the refusal to include at least occasional YA book reviews seems particularly shortsighted to me. It smacks of superiority, of more of that "serious readers vs everybody else" attitude that seems to lurk at the corners of far too many online literary conversations. It's like standing in a room with people who claim they were reading Dostoyevsky at age 12 as opposed to the likes of Harry Potter.

I never believe those people. (And honestly if it's true, it's deeply strange.)

The other day my 13 year old son finished reading the two Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud and raved about them, insisting I give them a shot. I read both books, enjoyed the heck out of them, (great characters, wonderful world building, just the right dose of creepy mystery), and promptly emailed a cousin to suggest them for his son. I also made a note to buy them for my niece in a couple of years (she's a little young) and will be mentioning them to a sister-in-law for my nephew to read.

My son accomplished with his review exactly what lit sites are supposed to be about--to share good books with as many potential readers as possible. I'm not sure that most literary sites believe that anymore or rather, that they have narrowed their definitions of potential readers to a size that makes it too small for general readers (and book buyers) like me to feel welcome.

I'm going to send some queries out to a few science sites for the piece I have on those YA nonfiction books. I'm hoping it will have a better reception there.


*Nope, I'm not going to name names because then this becomes a big me vs them post and I just don't have the energy for that level of online dramarama right now.

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8. Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo


Half a Man is a small square illustrated book with limited text that has been published for middle grade readers. It tells the story, from young Michael's perspective, of his relationship with his divorced grandfather who was badly burned when his merchant ship was torpedoed during WWII.

While growing up, visits were stilted and uncomfortable and full of nervousness that he might stare at his grandfather's scars, after being told repeatedly by his mother that he must not. The two slowly began to connect only when Michael was sent alone to spend part of his summer holiday with his grandfather (who lived on the distant Scilly Isles) It is only after high school that Michael finally hear the story of what happened during the war and in the years afterwards when his grandparents split up. It is all as tragic as readers might expect and made all the more so by how everything went sadly wrong when the survivor, so horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally, returned home.

I read the book in minutes--there's not much to it after all--and was struck both by the gorgeous and scorching honesty of Morpurgo's story and the truly lovely accompanying illustrations by Gemma O'Callaghan. It's all such an elegant package and I really really love it but....I don't for a second think this is a book for kids 8-12 years-old.

It is not that the subject matter is too intense; kids read about horrible things all the time and there is nothing portrayed in a graphic manner (either through words or images) in Half a Man. But what the book is really about--compassion, empathy, becoming a man and sharing emotional honesty with those you love--well, I can't help but think it is all too much for the average tween. Are there some who will get it? Yes, yes, I'm sure they are out there. But this is a book that I believe requires the reader have more life experience then most middle graders bring to the table. I just don't think they have lived enough to get what Murpurgo is sharing and while Half a Man might not appear to be the sort of book that teens (and adults) should be reading I think they are the ones who will appreciate it the most.

(I have a very smart 9 year-old niece and I am 100% certain she would read this book, tell me it was sad and then move on without a backward glance after turning the last page. It's too much to expect her to get this one right now and a waste of time to try.)

Half a Man is an amazing book and I hope that it finds readers who will appreciate every single word.

[Interior spread via Candlewick Press.]

Add a Comment
9. Literary web sites, YA books & snobbery

While attending a large literary conference last year I approached a table for a popular lit site* and asked to speak with someone about submitting reviews. I was pointed in the direction of a nearby friendly editor who I introduced myself to and explained that I was a reviewer for Booklist and also the longtime YA columnist for Bookslut. “I would like to submit a review of some YA books with crossover appeal to your site,” I explained, “and wondered if there was a specific person to whom I should direct my email.”

“Oh, we don’t run any teen book reviews,” she replied. “Our readers aren’t interested in those books. You can always submit to our general site email though and take a chance. Thanks for stopping by!”

And then she turned her back and starting speaking to someone else and I realized I was having one of those moments where someone dismisses you in a way that is acceptably rude but certainly feels lousy.

In the months after that interaction, I spent some time looking for lit sites that might be open to new YA submissions. I was picked up by LARB for a piece last fall and am now doing regular reviews for Locus (in print). Last month I finished a piece I’ve been wanting to write for a while about a YA series of NF science books though and emailed a query letter to another big lit site. The response was very polite, the editor was actually interested in the books for his kids, but again I was told that their readers are not interested in “these kinds of books”. And that’s when I got serious about seeing just what kind of books lit sites are reviewing.

There have been a zillion articles written about whether or not adults read YA; enough of them that I don’t need to tackle that subject again. One thing no one does dispute is that people who visit lit sites are book readers and book lovers and while there have been no big surveys about whether or not these folks have children, I think it is safe to assume that a decent sized segment of the reading population are in fact parents and probably inclined to buy books for their kids.

I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb when I suggest that perhaps these parents might want to know about a great book every now and again that might be enjoyed by their kids (or their nieces, nephews, cousins, godchildren or other young people in their lives). The assumption that appears to be widely made by the lit sites however is that their readers would prefer to find those type of book reviews (and the books themselves) elsewhere. I have no idea why they have come to this conclusion.

I suppose some site administrators do survey the specific post stats and can say that a YA book review receives fewer visitors than a comparable adult literary review. But honestly, that kind of analysis doesn’t really impress me much as a reader. Stats can be driven by so many strange things (like controversy) and quantity does not necessarily mean quality.

In other words, 1,000 people might blow through a post, not read past the first few paragraphs and never think of the book again while 200 readers might read another post and all go out and buy the book or check it out from the library or mention it on social media. It’s really tough to quantify the value of one visitor over another.

None of that is the point though as I don’t think that potential stats are what drive the decision for lit sites to pass on YA book reviews. I think it is a lot more about not wanting to be perceived as a teen site or be associated with people who read or want or care about teen books. Lit sites want to be about certain books and the people who they think read those and all the rest, well, those are books for other kinds of readers.

Yeah, this is that dismissive part again.

While I am not a fan of casting a derisive eye on genre reading either, (I love a good fantasy, mystery or romance as much as anyone), the refusal to include at least occasional YA book reviews seems particularly shortsighted to me. It smacks of superiority, of more of that “serious readers vs everybody else” attitude that seems to lurk at the corners of far too many online literary conversations. It’s like standing in a room with people who claim they were reading Dostoyevsky at age 12 as opposed to the likes of Harry Potter.

I never believe those people. (And honestly if it’s true, it’s deeply strange.)

The other day my 13 year old son finished reading the two Lockwood & Co. books by Jonathan Stroud and raved about them, insisting I give them a shot. I read both books, enjoyed the heck out of them, (great characters, wonderful world building, just the right dose of creepy mystery), and promptly emailed a cousin to suggest them for his son. I also made a note to buy them for my niece in a couple of years (she’s a little young) and will be mentioning them to a sister-in-law for my nephew to read.

My son accomplished with his review exactly what lit sites are supposed to be about–to share good books with as many potential readers as possible. I’m not sure that most literary sites believe that anymore or rather, that they have narrowed their definitions of potential readers to a size that makes it too small for general readers (and book buyers) like me to feel welcome.

I’m going to send some queries out to a few science sites for the piece I have on those YA nonfiction books. I’m hoping it will have a better reception there.

*Nope, I’m not going to name names because then this becomes a big me vs them post and I just don’t have the energy for that level of online dramarama right now.

Add a Comment
10. Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Half a Man is a small square illustrated book with limited text that has been published for middle grade readers. It tells the story, from young Michael’s perspective, of his relationship with his divorced grandfather who was badly burned when his merchant ship was torpedoed during WWII.

While growing up, visits were stilted and uncomfortable and full of nervousness that he might stare at his grandfather’s scars, after being told repeatedly by his mother that he must not. The two slowly began to connect only when Michael was sent alone to spend part of his summer holiday with his grandfather (who lived on the distant Scilly Isles) It is only after high school that Michael finally hear the story of what happened during the war and in the years afterwards when his grandparents split up. It is all as tragic as readers might expect and made all the more so by how everything went sadly wrong when the survivor, so horribly scarred, both physically and emotionally, returned home.

I read the book in minutes–there’s not much to it after all–and was struck both by the gorgeous and scorching honesty of Morpurgo’s story and the truly lovely accompanying illustrations by Gemma O’Callaghan. It’s all such an elegant package and I really really love it but….I don’t for a second think this is a book for kids 8-12 years-old.

It is not that the subject matter is too intense; kids read about horrible things all the time and there is nothing portrayed in a graphic manner (either through words or images) in Half a Man. But what the book is really about–compassion, empathy, becoming a man and sharing emotional honesty with those you love–well, I can’t help but think it is all too much for the average tween. Are there some who will get it? Yes, yes, I’m sure they are out there. But this is a book that I believe requires the reader have more life experience then most middle graders bring to the table. I just don’t think they have lived enough to get what Murpurgo is sharing and while Half a Man might not appear to be the sort of book that teens (and adults) should be reading I think they are the ones who will appreciate it the most.

(I have a very smart 9 year-old niece and I am 100% certain she would read this book, tell me it was sad and then move on without a backward glance after turning the last page. It’s too much to expect her to get this one right now and a waste of time to try.)

Half a Man is an amazing book and I hope that it finds readers who will appreciate every single word.

[Interior spread via Candlewick Press.]

Add a Comment
11. The book you write when you find out your great great grandmother is a ghost

Now this is a book on family history you don't find to often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family's hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus's gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia's ghost.

At first, the "ghostbusting" chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia's life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however--she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

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12. The book you write when you find out your great great grandmother is a ghost

Now this is a book on family history you don’t find too often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family’s hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus’s gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia’s ghost.

At first, the “ghostbusting” chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia’s life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however–she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

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13. The Eterna Files

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It's not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn't keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln's assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I'm sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There's all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I'll be back for the sequel; I just can't manage to stay away.

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14. "An aristocratic family, a high-society scandal and an extraordinary legacy"

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there's Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner's estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It's not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here's what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne'er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it's also about a lot of people who weren't the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It's.....well, it's crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren't supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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15. The Eterna Files

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It’s not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn’t keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I’m sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There’s all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I’ll be back for the sequel; I just can’t manage to stay away.

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16. “An aristocratic family, a high-society scandal and an extraordinary legacy”

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there’s Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner’s estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It’s not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here’s what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne’er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it’s also about a lot of people who weren’t the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It’s…..well, it’s crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren’t supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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17. Ships on ice

larsen.jpg
From Gizmodo:

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers pushing an iceberg out to sea to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29th December 1965. The ships are, left to right: the USS Burton, USS Atka and USS Glacier.


I am endlessly fascinated by ships and ice - no idea why but it explains why I loved that Polar Literature course in college so much. (Follow the link for more wicked cool pics!)

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18. Ships on ice

larsen.jpg

From Gizmodo:

Three U.S. Navy icebreakers pushing an iceberg out to sea to clear a channel leading to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, 29th December 1965. The ships are, left to right: the USS Burton, USS Atka and USS Glacier.

I am endlessly fascinated by ships and ice – no idea why but it explains why I loved that Polar Literature course in college so much. (Follow the link for more wicked cool pics!)

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19. Best Novel of the Year: The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Okay folks, I'm calling it now--The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken) is the best novel I'm going to read this year. A perfect follow-up to Laurain's delightful The President's Hat, this upcoming release has the most common of set-ups and yet becomes the best meet-up story ever. That it manages to be a fairly traditional romance that is not the slightest bit mushy but rather the very definition of wit and smarts and downright cool is proof positive that any tale can be retold in a refreshing way. I knew there would be a happy ending here as I knew the protagonists would meet (beyond that we can't know), but the journey was so lovely; I'm still trying to figure out just how Laurain accomplished so much in so few pages.

Book of the year, folks. Book.Of.The.Year.

The plot is straightforward: Laure is mugged on her doorstep returning home late one night, losing her purse and getting hit in the head in the process. With no way to get into her apartment, she walks across the street to a hotel, convinces them to let her have a room for the night and then, more injured than she realized, slips into unconsciousness overnight. She is rushed to the hospital in the morning and her part of the story is thus paused.

Divorced bookseller Laurent comes across a discarded high quality purse while out getting breakfast and impulsively picks it up and even though it lacks identification, decides to try and find the owner. Going through the contents, an image forms in his mind of the woman who owns them and he can not resist the allure of the mystery she poses. Laurent thus becomes an amateur detective and even though the reader already knows about Laure, it's impossible to resist Laurent's search for clues and be cheered by his every success.

Slowly, Laurent finds his way to Laure's life just as she reenters the story through her friends and co-workers and recovery. Laurent's daughter and ex-wife are introduced, readers learn more of his life and Laure's own past is revealed as well. They are two extremely ordinary people--there are no tales of horror and high drama to force the plot along. But Laurain is such a great writer that these characters become more and more compelling the more they are on the page. Laurent's previous career, Laure's job, their mutual love of books (bibliophiles will rejoice!), their families, their hopes, their dreams and of course, the red notebook.

Laure keeps a notebook in her purse where she writes lists of what she loves, what she's afraid of, what she longs for. Here's a bit:

More things I like:

Summer evenings when it gets dark late.
Opening my eyes underwater.
The names 'Trans-Siberian Express' and 'Orient Express' (I'll never travel on either).
Lapsang Souchong tea.
Haribo Fraises Tagada.
Watching men sleep after making love.
Hearing 'Mind the gap' on the tube in London.

The Red Notebook resonated with me for several reasons, I think but mostly it was the extraordinary appeal of these characters who managed to sneak up on me and settle into my heart. This book could have been so many things--it seemed destined to be Meg Ryanesque* more than anything else--but it's a thoroughly grown-up story about how two adults come to know each other. That it is remarkably literary as well is just a huge bonus.

Don't miss this one; it's really something special.

*Not that there's anything wrong with that!

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20. Assessing January on the resolution scale

mine.jpg

So, one month gone in 2015 and time to take a moment and assess what was accomplished. Here we go:

1. Eight books reviewed for Booklist. This is a way higher number than usual, as four of the books were read in December but I didn't write about them until I got home in mid-January. Getting all of the books reviewed cleared my decks for Booklist though--I've got nothing waiting in the wings for them.

2. One book read and reviewed for Locus.

3. Four articles written and edited for the Bush Pilot blog. Only two of them ran in January but two more should run this week. My schedule there means running two items a week in the blog which I hope to be consistent with. I have one piece drafted to turn in and notes on two more. My editor is out of town until the 8th, but I'll have articles ready for him when he gets back.

4. Essay written and submitted. One of my resolutions is to have an essay submitted somewhere each month. Drafting on essay #2 for 2015 begins now.

5. Pitches made on two longer book-related pieces. Followed up on an earlier pitch to the same place and heard it is still in the mix and hopefully now, after my nudge, I'll hear back on it.

And that is all on that. It's important to note that all of this work was for paying outlets--I'm officially done with writing for free (with the exception of here and Guys Lit Wire, of course).

I also sent out a letter making a Freedom Of Information Act request for an AK aviation article. This will be a big one to write (a two-parter I think) and I'm hoping to start a draft on it this week.

And there's a research letter I need to send out on another essay; I don't know why I've been nervous about even writing this but I have. It's just a letter, but I guess I have such high hopes for this piece that even starting it concerns me a little.

And finally a pitch to put together for a short piece in another magazine. It's less than a thousand words, a straightforward profile of an interesting Alaskan. This is on my "to do" list for February.

So, not too bad a beginning to 2015. I've met my goals, didn't fall behind on anything and have been consistent in posting and reviewing. I'm going to call this a win for January. My biggest resolution for this year is consistency; so far, so good.

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21. The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky

The title of The Stonehenge Letters immediately caught my eye for reasons obvious to any history lover. The description though was the real seller - a novel about a researcher who discovers a cache of letters in the Nobel Prize "crackpot" file that are all written by Nobel winners, (Marie Curie, TR Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and Ivan Pavlov), and all seek to solve the mystery of Stonehenge. The narrator, who previously was occupied with trying to determine why Sigmund Freud was not awarded a Nobel, then changes course and seeks to discover what Nobel's connection was to Stonehenge. That historical mystery (which actually is true) along with the letters and why their authors were interested in writing them (all of which is fiction) makes up the plot of this diverting and smart novel.

Much of The Stonehenge Letters is straight up nonfiction and previously published in many other places, from Nobel's childhood, the conflicted relationship with his family (one of his brothers was blown up in an accident) and his romantic affairs. Karlinsky does a nice job of providing brief biographies of the major players at the end as well as a bit of his own historical research. Personally, I never knew that Stonehenge was privately owned (or for how long) and found that very interesting. (Nothing like being told by the government you own something crucial to the nation and thus can't sell it but you are responsible for its upkeep, protecting it from the public and the public from it and the government won't help you in any way financially.) (Go Britain!)

I loved the diversionary aspect of this novel, it's dips into and out of history, (the photos are fantastic!) and the cheekiness of the author. The narrator is a rather stuffy person but committed to the truth of his story and the truth here is as wild as you would expect. Roosevelt in particular does not disappoint with his outlandish proposal which includes bonus (!) Robert Peary!

You could believe all of this, it's that well thought out, and personally I loved the fun of believing it for awhile. It's exactly the sort of imaginative pop-culture/history mash-up that I don't think we get enough of in literature. Karlinsky took a chance here with his idea but his execution is perfect. Well done on Coach House Books for publishing such a fun book.

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22. Isabel's War by Lila Perl

I approached Isabel's War with a bit of trepidation--it's a WW2 novel with heavy mention of the Holocaust (although set in the US) and I feel like way too many books have been published over the years that use the pain of that war to gain easy sympathy. (You know who I'm talking about.)

Isabel's War is something different however, it opens in a summer vacation hotel ala Dirty Dancing for one, and the title character is a twelve-year old American with a healthy chip on her shoulder and an awareness of her own shortcomings that is quite refreshing.

(Her mother is also the world's most critical women, but Isabel can deal with her.)

Isabel meets teenage Helga, the newly arrived German niece of her mother's good friend, while at Shady Pines. The girls are quickly thrown together as adults will do to kids, ("I'm sure you girls will get along just fine!"), and though they have little in common, a small friendship begins to develop. Soon enough though Isabel's family is thrown in to turmoil, and must return home, when her older brother enlists. She doesn't expect to see Helga anytime soon but then the family friend becomes ill, Helga needs a place to stay for awhile and just like that the girls are practically 24/7 together.

One of the things Perl did so well with this novel is let Isabel and Helgo become friends slowly. There's no rush to BFF-dom here and the fits and starts in their relationship make both girls easier to relate to. Two other great characters are Isabel's friend Sibby and her mother who are heavily involved in the news of the war (Sibby's father is a merchant marine). They force Isabel to become more engaged and it is through their influence that she begins to ask Helga smart questions about her past and finally uncovers just how she came to America.

There's some very good history in Isabel's War, especially about the Kindertransport which is rarely covered in teen history or literature. It's also nice to see how Sibby's mother learns about the horrors Jewish people faced in Europe--she makes a point of telling Isabel that you have to read the small parts of the newspaper on the back pages to get the whole truth. As this was how news of the Holocaust slowly came to the world, it's a nice touch that Perl has it explained that way in the text.

There's a bit of Nancy Drew appeal to Isabel's War; all of Helga's secrets get revealed and Isabel is relentless to get to the truth. There is also some self-righteous fury here aimed at willfully ignorant adults and some expected coming-of-age angst. It's all good and I enjoyed this novel a lot.

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23. My great great aunt Ernestine and her secret British husband

ernestine (1).jpgOf my great grandmother Julia's three younger half sisters, Ernestine seemed to be the least mysterious. She was born in NYC in 1895, eventually married a man named "Mac" MacLeod and moved to Santa Barbara where they bought and ran a motel. I knew they were in California in the early 1930s as my great uncle Robie made a rather crazy motorcycle trip cross country then to visit them in a story I heard many many times. We have a few pics from that trip. And my mom remembered visiting the MacLeods in the 1950s, and we also have pictures of that.

Aunt Tina and Uncle Mac did not have children and I knew she passed away, after him, in the late 1990s. My genealogy goals were thus pretty small: get the marriage certificate for them, get death certificates and likely just move on. Nothing to see here, right?*

The biggest problem with Tina is that I don't know Mac's first name. Obviously, he went by a nickname derived from MacLeod, so that's a bit of a puzzle. But I figured Ernestine Pressl (her maiden name) was odd enough that a marriage certificate shouldn't be too difficult. So I set them up at ancestry.com, did a search and there you go, a 1915 marriage certificate in NYC for Ernestine Pressl.

And William A. Wilson of London.

ernestine2.jpgI paid to get a copy because I had to know if this was our Aunt Tina. How many Ernestine Pressls can there be after all? So after a few weeks it showed up and there she was, with the correct names for her parents (Marie Filak and Rudolph Pressl) and there was lovely William A., born in 1889, with his parents Pattie Clark and Arthur Wilson. It was a first marriage for both of them and took place in the same church as Tina's parents. This was definitely my family, I just didn't know a thing about what I was looking at.

First, I told my mother and she spent some time being shocked. ("No, Aunt Tina's husband was Uncle Mac. I met Uncle Mac, I remember Uncle Mac. Who in the world is William A. Wilson?")

Then I looked for a marriage between Ernestine Wilson (as that was her name for the 2nd marriage) and a MacLeod which came up with nothing. No idea what happened there. I'm thinking I'll have to spring for an international search as I've heard from family that Mac might have been Canadian. Maybe they went up there to get married? And beyond that, what happened to William? I looked in the records for British WWI deaths and there are, no surprise, more than a dozen William Wilsons. I'll have to find a way to search through those and see if my William is one of them (with a widow named Ernestine and middle name "A" which I bet is for Arthur). (How hard could it be to find him, right?!)

In the meantime I am looking at these pictures of Tina, taken around 1915, and wondering why on earth this had to be such a secret. There was never a mention of Tina as a widow, or divorced or with a man other than Mac. I can't help but think he disappeared from the family history simply because he was little known to all them. He was there and then he was gone and I guess didn't make enough of an impression.

Poor William A. Wilson; he didn't even rate a mention let alone a memory. And poor Aunt Tina, whose story, though a bit sadder, has just gotten a heckuva lot much more interesting.

[Post pic of Ernestines around 1910-1915. She was born in 1895, I figure she is in her late teens in these.]

*When am I going to learn to stop thinking that way? (Rhetorical question - genealogists never expect the kind of surprises that seem to be coming my way left and right lately.)

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24. My great great aunt Ernestine and her secret British husband

ernestine (1).jpgOf my great grandmother Julia’s three younger half sisters, Ernestine seemed to be the least mysterious. She was born in NYC in 1895, eventually married a man named “Mac” MacLeod and moved to Santa Barbara where they bought and ran a motel. I knew they were in California in the early 1930s as my great uncle Robie made a rather crazy motorcycle trip cross country then to visit them in a story I heard many many times. We have a few pics from that trip. And my mom remembered visiting the MacLeods in the 1950s, and we also have pictures of that.

Aunt Tina and Uncle Mac did not have children and I knew she passed away, after him, in the late 1990s. My genealogy goals were thus pretty small: get the marriage certificate for them, get death certificates and likely just move on. Nothing to see here, right?*

The biggest problem with Tina is that I don’t know Mac’s first name. Obviously, he went by a nickname derived from MacLeod, so that’s a bit of a puzzle. But I figured Ernestine Pressl (her maiden name) was odd enough that a marriage certificate shouldn’t be too difficult. So I set them up at ancestry.com, did a search and there you go, a 1915 marriage certificate in NYC for Ernestine Pressl.

And William A. Wilson of London.

ernestine2.jpgI paid to get a copy because I had to know if this was our Aunt Tina. How many Ernestine Pressls can there be after all? So after a few weeks it showed up and there she was, with the correct names for her parents (Marie Filak and Rudolph Pressl) and there was lovely William A., born in 1889, with his parents Pattie Clark and Arthur Wilson. It was a first marriage for both of them and took place in the same church as Tina’s parents. This was definitely my family, I just didn’t know a thing about what I was looking at.

First, I told my mother and she spent some time being shocked. (“No, Aunt Tina’s husband was Uncle Mac. I met Uncle Mac, I remember Uncle Mac. Who in the world is William A. Wilson?”)

Then I looked for a marriage between Ernestine Wilson (as that was her name for the 2nd marriage) and a MacLeod which came up with nothing. No idea what happened there. I’m thinking I’ll have to spring for an international search as I’ve heard from family that Mac might have been Canadian. Maybe they went up there to get married? And beyond that, what happened to William? I looked in the records for British WWI deaths and there are, no surprise, more than a dozen William Wilsons. I’ll have to find a way to search through those and see if my William is one of them (with a widow named Ernestine and middle name “A” which I bet is for Arthur). (How hard could it be to find him, right?!)

In the meantime I am looking at these pictures of Tina, taken around 1915, and wondering why on earth this had to be such a secret. There was never a mention of Tina as a widow, or divorced or with a man other than Mac. I can’t help but think he disappeared from the family history simply because he was little known to all them. He was there and then he was gone and I guess didn’t make enough of an impression.

Poor William A. Wilson; he didn’t even rate a mention let alone a memory. And poor Aunt Tina, whose story, though a bit sadder, has just gotten a heckuva lot much more interesting.

[Post pic of Ernestines around 1910-1915. She was born in 1895, I figure she is in her late teens in these.]

*When am I going to learn to stop thinking that way? (Rhetorical question – genealogists never expect the kind of surprises that seem to be coming my way left and right lately.)

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25. Isabel’s War by Lila Perl

I approached Isabel’s War with a bit of trepidation–it’s a WW2 novel with heavy mention of the Holocaust (although set in the US) and I feel like way too many books have been published over the years that use the pain of that war to gain easy sympathy. (You know who I’m talking about.)

Isabel’s War is something different however, it opens in a summer vacation hotel ala Dirty Dancing for one, and the title character is a twelve-year old American with a healthy chip on her shoulder and an awareness of her own shortcomings that is quite refreshing.

(Her mother is also the world’s most critical women, but Isabel can deal with her.)

Isabel meets teenage Helga, the newly arrived German niece of her mother’s good friend, while at Shady Pines. The girls are quickly thrown together as adults will do to kids, (“I’m sure you girls will get along just fine!”), and though they have little in common, a small friendship begins to develop. Soon enough though Isabel’s family is thrown in to turmoil, and must return home, when her older brother enlists. She doesn’t expect to see Helga anytime soon but then the family friend becomes ill, Helga needs a place to stay for awhile and just like that the girls are practically 24/7 together.

One of the things Perl did so well with this novel is let Isabel and Helgo become friends slowly. There’s no rush to BFF-dom here and the fits and starts in their relationship make both girls easier to relate to. Two other great characters are Isabel’s friend Sibby and her mother who are heavily involved in the news of the war (Sibby’s father is a merchant marine). They force Isabel to become more engaged and it is through their influence that she begins to ask Helga smart questions about her past and finally uncovers just how she came to America.

There’s some very good history in Isabel’s War, especially about the Kindertransport which is rarely covered in teen history or literature. It’s also nice to see how Sibby’s mother learns about the horrors Jewish people faced in Europe–she makes a point of telling Isabel that you have to read the small parts of the newspaper on the back pages to get the whole truth. As this was how news of the Holocaust slowly came to the world, it’s a nice touch that Perl has it explained that way in the text.

There’s a bit of Nancy Drew appeal to Isabel’s War; all of Helga’s secrets get revealed and Isabel is relentless to get to the truth. There is also some self-righteous fury here aimed at willfully ignorant adults and some expected coming-of-age angst. It’s all good and I enjoyed this novel a lot.

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