Category Archives: Reading

Spies In WWII

My senior year in high school I participated in an experimental class. Twenty five of us were chosen. Bishop Alemany was a leveled school, grouped in homogeneous classes: college prep, comprehensive and duh! I have no idea what they called the last group. I had tested into the college prep group. And almost from Day One the nuns and I went round and round about what I was supposed to be learning. For me school meant being able to have a library in the same place I was required to be each and every day, and, bonus, no limit on the number of books you could take out, unlike the Burbank Public Library on Glen Oaks Boulevard with it’s only seven books at a time requirement.

So, understand, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and I had different goals as to what was my education and what wasn’t. By my senior year, someone said, ‘okay, let’s try her in this class.’ I have no idea who to thank for this bit of grace. It was a history class. Since I was in third grade, I had said I would be a historian. My actual learning process, despite my parents amazing and continuing commitment, resembled more of a child being raised by educated librarian wolves of the great tundra, so, in truth, there was little chance I would fulfill my goal. But history, the past of just about anything, I considered my exclusive territory clear through my bachelor’s degree in college.

For most of high school, I was, to say a fan seems almost cruel, but I was, a fan of anything and everything surreptitious World War II. I focused especially Allied spies, members of the Resistance, POWs, mostly the RAF Spitfire pilots and small cadres of individuals who risked life and limb to defeat the Nazis and their war machine. Perhaps it was due to my library access the first eight years of my schooling, at Villa Cabrini Academy, the plethora of stories on the lives of the saints, saints who too had risked life and limb in the name of Christ. So, the uncertainty of spying and defeating what was true evil in the world by people who were not that much older me was maybe a continuation of my childhood reading. And so, in this independent study class, I wrote a thesis on spies.

Before spies were hi-tech, before they had gadgets, before they wore tuxedos, played baccarat inhabiting the world of James Bond, they lived difficult, grimy, horrendously scary lives, lives without fanfare, lives without rest or respite, lives of danger and terror. And, after the war, when they had a chance to come to terms with what they had won and what they had lost, they wrote their stories, histories. The stories were gritty. There was little glory, only the end of the war or death. And yet, they did this, volunteered, said yes, despite the fear. Because of these resistors, both homegrown and foreign nationals, the Allied forces triumphed. Much was lost so that there could be a win.

Elizabeth Wein‘s CODE NAME VERITY takes up that tradition of the dread of fighting covertly behind enemy lines. It is not a pretty story. It’s not a happy one. It is a story played out slowly, laboriously, and elegantly, letting us know how excruciating it was to fight a war from the inside out, and how many people were willing to risk, to say everything is so cliché, but all. No matter how many died in battles, assaults,  landings, and no question, we needed them, we praise them, we call them our Greatest Generation, we also needed those who were willing to risk their lives and save their souls on a narrow battlefield in one on one mental combat, a not-photographed battlefield, not trumpeted or on the front page of the Times, one that was shrouded in secrecy, unknown.

Ms. Wein says this is about women and their participation in the war. And yes, this book is. But there is so much more, because defeating evil knows no gender, no age, no nationality. And it is perhaps the most unlikeliest of us who raises her hand, almost casually, and says ‘I’ll go.”  CODE NAME VERITY is an excellent reminder of that ideal.

Magic

I’m not sure I believe in magic. I know! What a thing to say! A lifetime reader of fantasy, science fiction, a long time watcher of every scifi/fantasy movie or TV show, it’s a wowzer of a statement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic lately, there are so many children’s books that are big sellers with a touch or a basis in the weirdly paranormal, the wildly fantastical and the amazingly scientific. Magic, duh! I know I shouldn’t say it. But, still! Sigh. I read everything as a kid, from John Carter on Mars, to the Brothers Karamazov, to the Tales of Ivanhoe, followed up by Nancy Drew. It was the human story that amazed me, that people could be there, in that place, living that life. It wasn’t the magic.

In the late 60’s we had a family friend, John Hallford. My first southern gentleman, a courtly man, much like my dad, but with a flair–he was a member of the International Society of Magicians, the headquarters were the Magic Castle in the Hollywood Hills, below the big sign and Yamashiro Sky Room. John and Bernice, his second wife, would call me up and we’d go to the Castle for dinner or just for drinks and a show. In those days, you had to be a member to get in.

Parking was behind the castle, you walked to a massive wooden door that would creak, a little like Inner Sanctum, and inside would be a library, a librarian desk and no door. You would offer your name and reservation and wait until a sufficient number of people moved into the library and then the outer door would slowly close and you would be invited through a hidden door as the bookshelf would move off to the side. Inside was a dim, warm inviting bar. At one end of the bar was a stool that, for the uninitiated, slowly dropped until your chin was even with the bar top. A piano played solo, as in all by itself. There were small rooms, alcoves, niches; private, concealing, hideouts really, where small tricks and magic was practiced and discussed. Up stairs, in the dining room was a groaning board, twelve feet long, full of salads, fruits, vegetables, meats and all forms of desert. There were never crowds, especially as we usually went on a week night. Magicians from all over the world came to the Castle, to perform, to chat, to be seen by peers. The theaters, mostly in the basement, where the performances took place, were small, intimate, velvet curtains covering a tiny stage with footlights that separated the magician from the audience of maybe twenty, twenty five people. One night a young man from Budapest performed, it was astounding, he was from behind the Iron Curtain, a novelty in itself. And he was quite dashing. A mop of curly black hair, a bleach white dress shirt and tie, and a Mary’s Mantle blue tuxedo. He performed with sliver balls, his pale long fingered hands moving over, under and around, making the shiny orbs disappear and then reappear. I sat, mesmerized, just five feet from where he performed. It never occurred to me to figure out how he did it.

Although my sisters mocked my acceptance of his trick without wondering how, I was quite happy to give him his due. He did the performance so well it was riveting, besides, did I mention he was handsome, adorable, wow? The fact is, magic may exist–– who am I to say? We could use more of our brains than what we now use. And that old saw “magic is just science we don’t understand yet” is probably more than true.

I’ve read there are really only ten true stories from the depth of our ancient primal myths, surely they have all been written more than once. The magic is that people continue to write, to make variations on the same stories, and create a pantheon of remarkable literary characters [or not so literary–––maybe imaginary characters is a better word]. Magic is the ability to make a reader suspend disbelief, to care about the plight of the main character, to feel with that character the solution to the problem and then to be in wonder at the end.

wonder |ˈwəndər| noun; a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. Yep, that is magic!

Dear Mr. Peck

Even though I now know about the local idiom in southern Illinois, “going to Anna’ meaning committed to a mental hospital, and we have chatted over drinks at a party, calling you Richard, here, now, in this, will just not do. I’m about to go all fan girl on you so you can’t be anything but Mr. Peck, actually I should probably say, “Mr. Peck, Sir.”

I sat next to you in the common core presentation at SCBWI LA just to get the title of this book. The one you talked about at a post SCBWI LA wrap-up party a while back, the voice you lived with for a while, who kept pestering you, the one who walked onto the stage and demanded to be heard. The voice that became Three Quarters Dead. 

It’s been a while since I sat down with one of your books. My only and very lame excuse, that I just couldn’t get there from here. I was busy, with stuff, good reads, yes, some even wonderful, and with life, of course, that takes a good bit. There are those voices inside my own brain, teasing, taunting, chiding, begging. All those rationalizations thin, weak, useless, I really should have done this sooner.

So, a five hour plane ride, and yes, it started with an early rise, four A.M., so natch, I was awake at two-thirty, because getting to the airport on time and getting properly home was more important than sleep. And the trip to LAX and waiting and finally boarding. Meanwhile,Three Quarters Dead hung on my shoulder, lighter than you might think, because I was anticipating, not too different from Christmas Eve when it’s only a bit until, but there is still the hope and the thrill of something unopened, something new, not yet imagined on Christmas morning.

The most wonderful thing about a book and a plane, well, these days, anyhoo, is no one, not a soul, can tell me to put it away. So I began with the before, Last Fall. The set-up, the lead-up to Kerry’s story, or, at that point in time her non-life––illusive, ephemeral, lacking-in-substance sophomore life. And I read. Airplane travel can be a wonderful gift, it is sound, a white noise room stripping everything from your surroundings, letting you be whenever, wherever, whomever you choose. I chose this trip to be in Pondfield High School, a half a bench away from Tanya.

When I first started reading I thought Kerry rather brave. I don’t think I would have ever sat that close to someone who seemed to glow the golden aura that was Tanya. But Kerry said she wasn’t brave and I decided to believe her, to walk the halls of Pondfield High, sit near but not with Tanya, Natalie and MacKensie, to be close to, but not in the shimmering circle which was the ‘cool girls.’

And, as Kerry moved from outside the circle to inside the circle, but, not to the inner circle, I watched. It was worth it. So attached did I become to the story that I had to put down the book to breathe, to remind myself that Kerry would survive, well, to hope that she would, that good would come from this journey familiar to so many kids, that on the other side of Tanya, Natalie and MacKensie, Kerry would be, well, Kerry, smarter, stronger and more Kerry.

I stopped too, because I saw. Of course, I saw. And I was afraid. Not just for Kerry, but for every single solitary human being that feels that reflected light was [is] the only kind by which they would be seen. Kerry reminded me why these books are written, are important, and why they are read. And, I reminded me of why I didn’t read them as a kid and for the most part, don’t today. Somehow, inside my kid brain, deep inside, I knew that I could create my own shimmer, my own reflection, that my light could refract and be interesting, it might be small, weak even, but it would always be mine. And, so, unfortunately [at times], would be the consequences, hard, unyielding. But yes. They were mine! That was essential, I could live with that. Not always well, not always happily, but live, yes I could. And I watched Kerry learn that, and know that she will shimmer, and create something to reflect. And that kids will read this and know what is possible, what is real and that the golden auras of the ‘cool girls’ are really only gild––flimsy, gossamer.

Thank you, Mr. Peck. Sir.

A good day for rain

What do you think of on a rainy day? Sitting by a fire reading a good book? Napping and taking it easy? For me, if it rains all day it should be either November or February and it should be chilly. That was then…this is now.  Since I’ve lived on the east coast, which, Sigh, is actually longer than i lived on the west, most often rain meant summer and humidity. Weird. For me. Still.

This summer has been the wettest I can ever remember. 6.75 inches in July alone. The backyard is a swamp, the sprinklers have been on for only two weeks this year, so yes, we are saving money, but.  Lol, isn’t there always a but. But it seems like there are more bugs than usual, Tom is spraying every week, putting in those larva cakes to kill anything growing in the pond.

So while many of us joke about building an ark in the garage, we still say, ” but we need it.”  “Come on!” I say. Seriously?  At the beginning of the summer, yes, but now, that swamp in the backyard tells me the water table is filling up, maybe full up. If science was going to be amazing, it would figure out how to move all this water from where it is to where it would be needed. But a rant would digress.

Back to rainy days. They are nice. It is almost like God telling us to take a break, sit for a while, IMG_0128enjoy the sights and sounds of nature at its most uncontrollable. Although, I do believe Missy, who shakes and hides in the closet in her Thunder Shirt, thinks I could stop this, I can’t. And there’s no way for her to understand. I just wish she could relax and enjoy this too.

series

Series are endlessly fascinating to me, and not, at the same time. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why. I grew up reading series, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Judy Bolton, Bobbsey Twins, Encyclopedia Brown. We’ve got all the Bernstein Bears and the Boxcars Children, but those were actually Bayley’s.  Then as I got older, Lord of the Rings, The Gormenghast Trilogy, Foundation Trilogy, God is an Englishman, and more I probably can’t remember. I never read that North and South series, the civil war being one of my most unfavorite parts of history, well, that an the colonial period. I’ve read all ten of the 39 Clues, finished the Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Sisters Grimm. But I could not stay with Sammy Keyes, ye gods, there are eighteen of them, and never got to Cahills verses Vespers.  I don’t think I read all of the Nancy Drew, et al at any time.

I’ll finish a trilogy. For me, it’s sort of like vacation. When we went to the Ukraine in 2006, we were gone for sixteen days. Around day ten I was ready to be home. So when we made our reservations for Hawaii this year, it is a two week vacation that lasts ten days. Perfect. Like a three book series.

I mean, I love getting to know a character and watching them through their adventures and life. But then I get bored. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because of the choices they make. Choices that I question. Not because I agree or disagree, but because sometimes they just seem so contrived. Sort of like, you’re in a old mansion, it’s dark, it’s near Halloween, there have been strange things happening in the neighborhood, dogs barking, cats missing, a weird green light in the house at odd hours. Do you go down into the basement because you just heard a noise coming up the stairs? Do you do this at twelve oh one? No. Everyone knows that’s not smart. But they do it in books. Why?

Once, just once, I’d like an honest character who runs away.