Friday, May 27, 2011

A Covert Affair - by Jeanette Conant

This is an interesting title for a rather pedantic tale of Julia (McWilliams) and Paul Child’s friend, Jane Foster. This is definitely a non-fiction work that must have entailed a great deal of painstaking research by the author, Jeanette Conant. There are many references to primary sources such as letters, diaries, and government documents.
The question of whether or not Jane Foster really was a spy for the Russians is not answered. The author certainly leads us to believe that Jane probably did provide some confidential materials to others who were actually spies, but also points out that Jane was too disorganized and incapable of the subterfuge necessary for real espionage.
Jane and Julia and Paul were all working for the OSS during World War II. They spent much of that time in India. Jane and Paul were both artists who created drawings, set up the necessary backdrops for developing pamphlets to deceive and mislead the enemy. They also worked to mislead the native populations so that they would side with the Allies rather than the Japanese.
Julia, meanwhile, was the head of the clerical staff who filed all the top-secret paperwork and so she was actually the most informed of all when it came to classified information.
Unfortunately, Jane Foster’s background as a wealthy dilettante with a wealthy father who always supplied her with cash made her a very naïve, idealistic woman who partied too much and couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She passionately believed that the poor countries in that part of the world should be liberated from Imperial rule by the British, French and Dutch after the War, and she wrote reports and spoke out with words that were later used to brand her as a Communist.
During the McCarthy reign of paranoia in the 1950’s, anyone and everyone who looked cross-eyed was branded as a Communist. Jane Foster was accused of being a spy and spent years fighting extradition from France where she had been living.
All of this and more are detailed as Conant brings the threads of all source materials together to update the reader on the lives of Jane, Julia, Paul and a few other real people – up until the time of their deaths.

This is a book of historical non-fiction, despite the titillating title.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman
Sometime in January or February, Barnes & Noble offered this book at a reduced rate for my Nook so I bought it and downloaded it to save for a later date. I started reading it recently while we were traveling. (I was the passenger while Bob drove and listened to a Cub’s game.) I had not tried any of the ‘Tess Monaghan’ detective series before that point, but now I am intrigued and will be happy to pick up another novel featuring this newspaper reporter turned private detective. This crime-mystery series has been around for awhile and there are plenty of copies of the books available through the library system, so I won’t have to buy them unless I want to. There are even several of the series titles available via OverDrive so I can also read them on my Nook or listen to the audio books. I recommend this first book in the series if you enjoy crime novels with only a moderate amount of blood and guts.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Iris James, the postmistress of a small seaside community, was someone who honored the concept of order and defied the encroachment of any un-orderliness during the build-up to America’s involvement in World War II.
Throughout the whole book there is a struggle of whether life is random or somehow “adds up”. Is God really there and in charge – or not. Do our actions matter – or not.
And also, it is about the stories told by the voices of real people that touch us and cause us to stop and want to reach out to others. But why don’t we?
I think the author had an underlying motive to point out to us our own naïve complacency. She describes the complacency of Americans when they listened to reports of the atrocities of the Nazis and the treatment of Jews in the early 1940’s. The postmistress was one of those who kept herself detached and focused only on her own domain where she kept the mail moving in a very predictable and precise manner. She didn’t want to think of the chaos and destruction just across the water in Europe. Her boyfriend Harry, however, was obsessed with the notion that the chaos would be arriving soon on their own shores. But both of them denied the warnings that the young female radio journalist wanted them to heed: the holocaust was real and it wasn’t just a Jewish problem; it was a humanity problem.
That reminds me of a children’s book story by Eve Bunting. It is called “Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust”. I recommend that you read both “Terrible Things” and “The Postmistress”.


Saturday, May 07, 2011

I’ve been concentrating on storytelling for the past week or two. We spent the April 29-May 1st weekend in Downs, Kansas at the Kansas Storytelling Festival, which was fun and felt very down-home! That’s a sure-fire combination that appeals to the emotions.

The setting of the festival was simple and rural, but the stages were equipped with sophisticated sound systems, making for an enjoyable listening experience. To add to our pleasure, we found the people of Downs to be very hospitable!

The featured tellers were Andy Offutt-Irwin, Kim Weitkamp and Dino O’Dell. I had heard Andy at the 2007 National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN and knew that he would be great, but I had never heard the others and was very pleasantly surprised by their abilities. They were very professional while also making the audience feel as if they’d been living right down the street all our lives. We had a wonderful time and hope to be able to attend again in the future.

The Kansas Storytelling Festival is always the Friday and Saturday of last full weekend of April, so next year’s dates are April 27-28, 2012. The featured teller will be Donald Davis, my all-time favorite storyteller!

The way that we keep that great ‘storytelling’ high going in our consciousness long after we have to leave the storytelling grounds is by purchasing and listening to the audio CDs produced by the tellers. We bought “Itty Bitty Monsters” (by O’Dell who is one of the best children’s performers I’ve seen); “Book Every Saturday for a Funeral” and “Christmas at Southern White Old Lady Hospital” (both by Irwin; very funny – mostly stories featuring ‘Aunt Marguerite’); “Lip Service: an album with lots of whistling” (music performed by Irwin and friends; when I heard his song called ‘Tarry Here” I loved it and bought the CD primarily for the recording of that one song); and “Penny Candy Love: stories for grownups” (by Kim Weitkamp whose stories evoke warm, fuzzy memories and the longing to hear more. She sings and plays guitar well, too).

Because I’m trying to get my storytelling groove back after a few years out of the telling circuit, I’ve also been reading a new book in our library: The Art of Storytelling: Telling Truths through Telling Stories by Amy E. Spaulding. Spaulding deftly describes not only the ‘how-to’ elements, but more importantly she includes why. In fact there is a whole section of the book with the major heading of “Why Bother Learning and Telling Stories”. What a great question!!!

For me the answer to that question is that storytelling provides me with a venue in which I can express my values in a way that allows interaction with an audience. I love to sense the human connection that is provided thru the sharing of stories, whether I am the teller or the listener. And I also love those stories that contain immutable truths. In this age of instant communication and immediate change (of nearly everything), basic truths do still exist and can be expressed in stories that provide a sense of stability and reassurance.

The telling of a story is the giving of a gift. Spaulding writes about the important role of the audience in receiving the gift graciously. They must give full attention – with no cell phones ringing or side conversations. They must give visual cues to the teller to indicate understanding or confusion – or that they can’t hear clearly (hand to the ear). When it comes to audiences, bigger is not always better. Attentive and responsive is best! Many stories are heard best in smaller, more intimate settings.

In 1996 George Gerbner wrote:

For the first time in human history, the storyteller who tells most of the stories to our children, and at the same time to our parents and grandparents is not the church or the school. It is a small group of distant corporations with purposes of their own that have great virtues and great weaknesses. They are the storytellers that in many ways have taken over and given us a world into which our children are born and in which we all live.

Let us not allow these corporations to become the only tellers in our children’s or our friend’s lives. Reach out with your own stories – or the stories you have learned by heart because they have something worthwhile to share!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine
Reviewers compare this story to Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, but I don’t know about that correlation. Schine’s characters are shallow and spoiled and don’t seem to have much sense at all, much less sensibility. Miranda suddenly gives up any thoughts of her career and becomes entranced with the two-year old child of a much younger man; Annie tries to keep a handle on finances and common sense, but she is diverted by an infatuation with a charming author. This author has a daughter who keeps him apart from Annie; he also has a sister who has seduced her boss – who happens to be Annie and Miranda’s father! Betty, the spurned 70 year old wife is devastated by her husband’s request for a divorce and starts to refer to him as her late husband, preferring to think of him as dead. It isn’t funny, though I think we are supposed to believe it is. Most of it is sad. Not on my recommended list, unless you like to read about whiny rich people.