Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Book on Every Bed

Yes, I am one of those people who read advice columnists on a regular basis. I’m usually looking for pointers on coping with the world and the human condition. I was thrilled recently when columnist Amy Dickinson’s devoted her entire space for the promotion for literacy: Starting with children! Thrilled because I gave books to my great-nieces and great-nephews this Christmas. Books are the presents that get opened and quickly put down, so the youngster can attack the next wrapped present. They’re probably hoping for something with batteries that will entertain them with the modern version of bells and whistles that can possibly leave out a very important ingredient—human interaction. A book on every bed is a great project because it unites a young reader with a parent or other adult and could provide a perfect part of any day. That kind of magic is real.

Sharing your favorite picture books is not just for babies and younger children, it’s possible to find books that might entice teenagers to read on their own. I found one such gem with the latest volume of “The Atlas”, a publication by teens for teens that is created through the Midwest Writing Center’s YEW summer program. YEW stands for Young Emerging Writers, and yes, every summer a whole new crew learns how to write, edit, and publish a magazine that’s all their own work. Another reason the Midwest Writing Center is a valuable resource for the Quad-City area.

Learn more about starting your own “book on every bed” tradition by going to childrensreadingconnection.org or Amy Dickinson’s Facebook page: facebook.com/ADickinsonDaily.

The current volume of “The Atlas” is available for $10 at The Midwest Writing Center: http://www.mwcqc.org/books/the-atlas-13/

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review for The Boys in the Bunkhouse

I’m go to a lot of book clubs through the Davenport Public Library: Shorts & Sweets, Stranger than Fiction, See YA, and the West End. I have to confess the reason I joined all these clubs is because I get intimidated whenever I walk into the library or a book shop—I’m overwhelmed by all the choices. Is that fear of the unknown or laziness? I can’t do the research? Whatever, it’s a long-standing problem I solved by having someone else pick out the books I read. I’ve only had a few that I couldn’t finish. Many have been wonderful discoveries.

The perfect case in point was reading The Boys in the Bunkhouse by Dan Barry for Stranger than Fiction. It’s a new-this-year book club. I’ve found the selections a bit of a rocky road for me. These non-fiction books can be totally eye-opening or not, an easy read or a challenging one. Reading about the boys from the bunkhouse in Atalissa, Iowa, practically in my back yard, was definitely an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had any other way.

I enjoyed Dan Barry’s writing for both style and the in-depth research. He found the most amazing tidbits of information and skillfully wove them into the fabric of his text.

Thank you, Bill Fuhr and the rest of the Davenport library staff, for a great experience.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Review of the Replacement

Author Bianca Sierra-Luebke uses masterful plotting to create a believable world that’s a blend of science fiction and fantasy. The Replacement: Book 1 of the Replacement Series is an ambitious world-building introduction to seventeen-year-old Angelica Franklin as she transitions away from her humanity. Angelica’s captors use their own blood to mold her into a being that’s supposed to be a replacement, a Lymerian that will find a place in their highly-ordered society. They don’t get the what they were expecting. Angelica emerges strong, fearless and wanting answers for the years of secrets and lies. The ending is a cliffhanger that gives the reader a hint at the answers yet to come.

The above is what I wrote when I finished the book and wanted to get something posted to Amazon and Goodreads to let the author know she had one more review. She’s up to twelve. Not bad.

What I didn’t talk about in my haste to get the posts up was how impressed I was with her writing style. It’s crisp, clean and hits all the important plot points without overdoing it. That’s good in this case because she has a lot of action to cover timewise, fifteen years’ worth, in the small space of this book. On top of that she’s worldbuilding a complex society of aliens that aren’t necessarily all that alien anymore. She’s introducing new terminology. And, of course, laying the groundwork for all kinds of conflict: between individuals, between the main groups, between the long-lived Lymerian’s and those pesky humans who aren’t as primitive as they once were.

Did I mention Author Bianca Sierra-Luebke wrote her book in first person PRESENT tense? It’s something YA authors strive for these days and not all can pull off with consistent good results. It works well here, and I was quite a way into the book before I caught on. Kudos for that.

My only problem was losing track of who was speaking occasionally. Backtracking on dialog tends to drop one out of the narrative. Using a lot of “He says” or “She says” is a pain, but it keeps the reading pace going and they really don’t register after a while.

Now, the ending. The fact that this is part of a series was made clear up front. I can’t find fault with that. The ending is good. We readers have a lot more to find out about our protagonist. And there were a lot of juicy, tantalizing hints aimed at a great world-changing struggle ahead, but I must admit I wanted a bigger ending for this first book. However, I’m thinking that when the series is complete maybe all the books can be combined into one volume—the story line will be fluid and connected and grand—an epic saga in its own right. One can hope.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Questions to Start a Discussion for Any Book

Questions for a book discussion
1.     How did you experience the book? Were you drawn into the story early or later? How did you feel while reading it—amused, sad, confused, disturbed…?
2.     Do you find the characters convincing? Are they believable?
3.     Which characters do you particularly admire or dislike? What are their primary characteristics? 
4.     What motivates a given character’s actions? Do you think those actions are justified or ethical? 
5.     Do any characters grow or change during the novel? If so, in what way? 
6.     Who in the book would you like to meet? What would you ask, or say? 
7.     If you could insert yourself as a character in the book, what role would you play? You might be a new character or take the place of an existing one.
8.     Is the plot well developed? Is it believable? Do you feel manipulated along the way? 
9.     Consider the ending. Did you expect it or were you surprised? Was it manipulative or forced? Was it neatly wrapped up—maybe too neatly?
10.  If you could rewrite the ending, would you? In other words, did you find the ending satisfying? Why or why not?
11.  Can you pick out a passage that strikes you as particularly profound or interesting? 
12.  Does the book remind you of your own life? An event? A person—like a friend, family member, boss, co-worker? 
13.  If you were to talk with the author, what would you want to know?

[I always strive to acknowledge the sources for my quotes and for material that isn't my own. The source for this list of questions came from an internet search. I couldn't find a definitive author. It appears that they, the questions, are often used as a springboard to personalize discussions for many books. In that spirit I altered them for my use and to fit onto one page.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Tale of Two T-shirts

I have two t-shirts that I don’t wear very often. Well, hardly ever. I had to buy them. They were mementos from two of the three writing conferences I went to last year.

I always take lots of notes at the workshops and panel discussions I attend; they help me remember the important points, the tips on writing, and the things I need to research later. Notes make nice keepsakes, but the overall festive mood let me get hooked on purchasing commemorative apparel from the out-of-town venues: Nashville and Chicago.

So, I have two shirts and they’re both black. Black may be popular but it’s not my color, … and I brought them home anyway. They’ve sat in my closet, pretty much untouched, ever since. I did use one for a play where I needed to dress all in black as a sort of a neutral background color to set off a red hat and scarf that were my main props. Turned inside out and with the tag trimmed off the T with the least amount of printing passed quite well.

Not wearing a garment leaves it in great condition for an upcoming event such as my reading at RIVER LIGHTS BOOKSTORE in Dubuque this coming Saturday. But do I have the courage to wear a black shirt that has “KILLER NASHVILLE” splashed across the front in blood-red lettering? At least it has “Writers’ Conference” sedately written underneath the crimson headline. The bonus feature is the large moon that peers ominously over the silhouette of the Nashville skyline. This is important because there’ll be a full moon around 4 PM Friday afternoon. Saturday would have been better, but I’ll take what I can get.

I still must find the bravery to actually wear this shirt in a public place where I’ll quite likely be asked to explain it all. The four-day conference. The fact that my novel is a COZY MYSTERY and not some of the hardcore stuff other people write. At the very least, it will give me a starting point in my talk. It will all be good. 

That leaves the "MURDER AND MAYHEM" shirt for another author-ish occasion.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Guidelines for a Productive Critique

Here are some guidelines for reading and doing the workshop letters. Best, Amy
Fall Novel Writing Workshop with Amy Parker, 2012.

Writers: When you submit your work, please make sure it’s in 12-point font and double spaced.  Number the pages so we can refer to them in discussion.  Please include a synopsis for context if the pages you submit are from the middle of the manuscript.

Readers: read the material twice. First go through with a “magazine read”, reading as you would if you just picked the story up and were reading for pleasure.  What’s your first impression? Read like a reader. On the second read, read like a writer. Go through the story and mark up the manuscript—mark passages that delight you, things that confuse you, areas where you have questions. Write comments in the margins. 

The letter: write a letter to the author, about a page. The letter should do the following:

First, describe the story. On the most basic level, what happens? (We do this so the author gets a sense of what the reader understands. It may seem obvious, but sometimes readers pick up on things the author didn’t intend, and the author should investigate why). Where do you think the story is going? 

Next, note what the story does well. What do you admire? What moved you? What worked and why?  Be specific. Quote as necessary. (Few things are more pleasurable than having one’s work quoted.)

Finally, what confused you? Where does the story need developing or clarifying? Are there gaps, inconsistencies? Is the language unclear? Are there scenes that could be compressed, or summaries that need to be amplified? What questions do you have about the material? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sue Grafton’s X

When anyone asks me who’s my favorite author I’m at a loss to pick one person out of lifetime of reading. I’ve gone through a lot of phases, like reading the science fiction greats, focusing on animals of various kinds, and the searching out the books behind the movies I’ve seen. This amounts to odd assortments of things for pleasure, school, and work. I liked things and found value in my reading, but I can’t say I found an all-time standout favorite among all those authors.

Now, when I decided to write a novel and chose it to be a mystery I launched into a campaign of reading other mystery writer’s first books, which is where discovered Sue Grafton’s work.

I read the first three letters of the alphabet series before skipping on to later letters. I admired her skill at descriptions, her attention to details, and her grasp of human nature, and I still have S on my bookshelf because of her author’s note about maps. After that, I took another break.

Then I heard she won’t be finishing the alphabet; there would never be a Z. So, when I found a copy of Sue Grafton’s X marked down and too much of a bargain to walk away from, I had my chance to get caught up with Kinsey Millhone.

I totally enjoyed the experience of reading a mature author in high form. Grafton sets an excellent example of how to weave multiple characters, plots, and subplots together into a satisfying whole. She never compromised her standards.

Here’s a list of quotes I had presence of mind to flag:

·       “… he had a wen beside his nose …" [It’s like a boil.]

·       “Memory is subject to a filtering process that we don’t always recognize and can’t always control. We remember what we can bear and we block what we cannot.”

·       “Silence allowed me time for reflection and helped to quiet the chatter in my head.”

·       “I pressed the button that lowered the driver’s-side window and then put both hands on the steering wheel where he could see them. I could write a primer on how to behave in the presence of law enforcement, which basically boils down to good manners and abject obedience.”

·       “They’re disconnected and cold and lack any semblance of humanity. Symptoms typically manifest in adolescence, which is when you start seeing aggression and antisocial acting-out.”

·       “You can’t make someone else do anything, even if you know you’re right.”

·       “Just because I couldn’t solve my own problems doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a go at yours.”

Since Sue Grafton is the one author I’ve come back to more than once, or twice, I have to say the verdict is in: she’s my favorite.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Nordstrom Medicine Show

I had a blast from the past from the Sunday, Apr. 8, Dispatch/Argus newspaper. Their “Today in History” featured Rev. W. S. Nordstrom as the 50-year-old story.

I discovered Rev. Nordstrom’s unique Medicine Show at the Henry County Historical Museum back in 2010 and wrote about it for the Galva News.

This is what I submitted:

The Medicine Show
By Mary Davidsaver

At the Henry County Historical Museum in Bishop Hill, tucked away in the back of room B, visitors will find a glass case with an odd assortment of memorabilia.

The case contains a variety of patent medicine bottles, a yellow vest and a small 4-hole Hohner harmonica, among other things.

Nearby an old button accordion rests on top of a wooden box with “Bumstead’s Worm Syrup” stenciled on the front.

It all comes together as soon as Roger Anderson slips a CD into a TV set and turns it on.

“I had CDs made from a video tape of Wayne Nordstrom,” he explained. “I thought this would add interest to his bottle collection.”

It seems that the late Rev. Nordstrom, the Methodist pastor put out to pasture, had more interests than just flying his airplane around the countryside visiting the churches in the Central Illinois Conference.

His program, recorded in Mesa, Arizona in 1998 and titled “Laughter is the Music of the Soul,” features jokes, music and humorous stories about the bottles he found under his house.

Nordstrom had ventured under the 8-bedroom farm house that lies between Galva and Bishop Hill when his wife complained that natural “air conditioning” wasn’t a good thing to have in the wintertime.

While down there he discovered a trash heap sealed within the brick foundation. He found nearly 500 bottles of all kinds, dating from 1850 to 1890.

Apothecary and patent medicine bottles of all sizes, shapes and colors, many with their labels intact, comprised the majority of the hoard.

His curiosity got him started doing research. He wanted to figure out why there was a need for Dr. Warner’s Liver Cure or Dr. Foley’s Blood Purifier. There seemed to be a great many medicinal elixirs for the stomach, bladder, liver and kidneys. Some liniments promised immediate relief, but remained vague about what kind of relief one would find.

A personal favorite was Pierces’s Pleasant Purgative Pellets. “It does the work of dynamite without the danger.”

Then there’s Mexican Mustang Liniment. Guaranteed to “heal ‘em up and head ‘em out.”

The list of ingredients for some of the so-called “cures” is impressive: opium, chloroform, ether, turpentine, cod liver oil. These on top of an assortment of roots, leaves, and bark. And alcohol—lots of alcohol.

It’s enough to make one really appreciate the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Nordstrom wondered how people could be so gullible. But he reminds us that these were down to earth people desperately trying to cope with real problems. Look at us today; we are still taking drugs and herbs to manage our problems. He asked us to imagine what it would look like if we kept our trash under our house.

He also brings up the point that maybe folks back then didn’t want a cure at all. He found 50 bottles of a particular consumption cure. That’s a lot of horehound syrup—along with more than a fair amount of alcohol.

Nordstrom probably wasn’t joking when he called some of this stuff “hooch.” The high alcohol content may have made it a socially acceptable way to do a little imbibing. It certainly could have delivered the cure it promised; after drinking it, no one would want to cough by an open flame.

Toward the end of Nordstrom’s performance, with the help of the button accordion and his wife on the piano, he led the audience through several tunes and sing-a-longs.

The retired Reverend put on quite a successful version of a medicine show. It’s hard not to applaud him right along with the audience.

Stop by the Henry County Historical Museum for more information and take a look at the medicine bottles. Copies of the CD are available for purchase.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Essay on Radioactive Dirt

Let’s be clear, I’m older than dirt. That would be radioactive dirt. Sure, radioactivity is around us all the time because it’s a natural thing in the environment with levels that are normally nontoxic. The dirt I’m referring to is the kind that became enriched with Strontium 90, a product of nuclear fission. Forget the spent fuel from nuclear reactors or their radioactive waste: I’m talking atomic and hydrogen bombs. The testing of those bombs, both above and below ground, was the cornerstone of the Cold War, and went on from WWII until a partial test ban was signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1963.

As a child of a time without computers or the internet, I knew little of the larger world outside of my immediate family. But at some point, I did become aware of images of mushroom-shaped clouds over the desert sands, of horrific winds blowing away houses, and the danger it might present for my small self to get in the way of such things. Blame television. Blame the schools, too. They were the ones to come up with “Duck and Cover” drills. The “make like a turtle” and hide under your school desk all tucked up into a ball. I’m here to tell you that even a socially-unconnected little kid from that era can figure out how valueless those tactics would ever be in the real situation.

One of the presents for my twelfth birthday was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The tense standoff between the US and the USSR. Seriously, the grownups around me were worried. So was I. The treat of nuclear war was real. I remember that I wanted to come to some kind of understanding with this scary scenario, this unthinkable end of everything. I wanted to find a way to go on with daily life without being paralyzed with fear. I wanted to just be a kid.

My solution then was totally childlike and naïve: I chose to trust that the grownups would not let me down. They would fix things. Keep me and everyone safe. And it happened. An agreement was reached, and everyone stepped back from the brink of disaster.

So, here it is decades later and politics has us as bitterly divided, the newspaper headlines tell me the government has been shut down, there are new kinds of bombs out in the world, and homegrown terrorists seem to be shooting at random. I’m much too old and too cynical to wait silently on the sidelines.

It’s time for the current crop of adults to step up, work together, and fix things. Our children need to be safe, and it would be nice if they didn’t have to do all the work themselves.  

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sweet T and Timing

 I had a totally awesome experience last month. I found, by accident, an old Facebook message. Sadly, the enticing offer to do a guest blog post was six weeks old. I began beating myself up for not being on top of the social media game, all the while knowing that it would be futile. I do what I can.

Finding the old message was a verifiable miracle as far as I was concerned. But was it a real offer and not some scam? I’ve been tricked before. I have the infected computer (sitting in the closet) to prove it. I checked out Southern Writers Magazine online. It’s real. I clicked through to Suite T and started reading recent blog posts by William Walsh. I got down to his Jan. 26 post and came upon a familiar quote and a long-forgotten name of a writing instructor. So, two miracles in one morning.

I sat down at my new computer to write out my thoughts—to create one more miracle. I didn’t procrastinate, let those thoughts fade, I got on with some real writing.

I resisted the urge to send it in that first night. Totally GOOD IDEA on my part, because by the next morning’s light I could tell that while the basics were solid enough, I had to do some reorganization for flow and clarity.  

The second draft was better. Then, I took time to read the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Bad news. I had to chop out words to get from 640 to under 500.

That took some doing. In fact, I over did it, and got to add words back (saved my ending). Still, it’s good practice to weigh every word and thought.

The title of my blog post is FOX HUNTING, and I will be sure to let everyone know when it will be posted.

THE TRUTH: I’ve finally figured out that if I had found that message in a timelier manner, like, any time sooner than when I did, I would have missed the whole sequence of events that led up to my discovering the teacher’s name. I also would have been hard pressed to have anything relevant to write about. I hate to say this, but procrastination really worked out in my favor this time. Makes me wonder how many other times I benefitted by being lucky instead of being talented.

I am going to look for books by William Price Fox.

Find Sweet T at: http://southernwritersmagazine.blogspot.com

Find FOX HUNTING at: http://southernwritersmagazine.blogspot.com/2018/03/fox-hunting.html

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bucktown Revisited

Jonathan Turner’s A Brief History of Bucktown was the star attraction at the last READ LOCAL event held at the Bettendorf Public Library.

I couldn’t attend. So, to atone I found last year’s Goodreads book review to post.

“This is a small but mighty volume that highlights the history and heritage of an important river town. Davenport was part of the Tri-Cities first and then the Quad Cities most recently as they all shared the banks of the Mississippi River. The river brought life, prosperity, and growing pains to an early frontier Davenport that rivaled the likes of cities many times its size. Turner documents it all with faithful quotes from a great many sources. He begins in the 1880s by showing us the booze-soaked red-light district and progresses forward through the boom and bust years of two world wars and a major farm crisis. He ends with an amazing come-back story of urban revitalization.

The high point for me was going to hear the Quad City Wind Ensemble preform at St. Ambrose University's Allaert Hall. I'd just finished the part of chapter four that highlighted the cultural influence of the German American population's love of all things musical. The title of the performance was "Fiesta" and the music was lively and uplifting. I felt like I had a direct line back to those rowdy beer halls of Bucktown in its heyday without having to stagger home.

There's just so much information here and the before and after photos are very helpful, but it left me wishing for someone to put together a tour to give me more.

Turner has done an impressive job with his brief overview. I think he has opened a door to a lot of stories waiting to be told."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Cucamonga Valley Wine Book Review

Co-authors George Walker and John Peragine have created a little gem of a book. Cucamonga Valley Wine is packed with facts, figures, and photos that highlight an area of California that needs to be remembered for its contribution to the history of the wine industry and to American society.

What looked like useless, inhospitable soil at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains held a secret treasure that few outsiders would discover until Franciscan monks showed up with their Mission grapes. A century later, that wild wasteland of rocks, sand, and desert plants revealed a deep source of water that would allow for the dry-farming, or non-irrigation, of varieties of grapes familiar to Italian immigrants well trained in the art of winemaking. Those enterprising Italian families worked for generations to establish a strong wine-producing culture that outlasted Prohibition and wasting diseases. They persevered until modern times, when car exhaust and urban sprawl proved to be too much competition.

Wine enthusiasts will appreciate the attention to detail and the ending that isn’t an ending: There will always be a place for fine wine at the American table.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sharing a Great Find

I found these thoughts on writing very useful for more than just flash fiction. It was one of those “I got it right” moments for me.    


How to write flash fiction

By David Gaffney, The Guardian, Monday 14 May 2012 

1. Start in the middle.
You don't have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.

2. Don't use too many characters.
You won't have time to describe your characters when you're writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.

3. Make sure the ending isn't at the end.
In micro-fiction there's a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

4. Sweat your title.
Make it work for a living.

5. Make your last line ring like a bell.
The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you've been run over by a lorry full of fridges.

6. Write long, then go short.

Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realize, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn't sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

An Alzheimer’s Journey

My book review on:

My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
by Martin J. Schreiber with Cathy Breitenbucher

This timely little book is filled with big messages. The first being: Caregivers must care for themselves. The second: Make use of all your resources. The third: Accept help from family and friends. The fourth: By entering the world of your Alzheimer's loved one, you can avoid the conflict of clashing realities and find a way to cherish the small moments of comfort and joy. There's much more to find in this frank and readable volume. Martin Schreiber was kind and brave to share so much of his personal story.

On a current note:

I’ve been going to classes presented by Jerry Schroeder at Eastern Library for the past two weeks. He is Senior Program Specialist with the Alzheimer’s Association, Greater Iowa Chapter, and has a lot of knowledge and experience to share both with the slides he shows and the Q & A afterward.

There will be one more class titled “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going” next Tuesday, Jan. 30, from 3:30-5:00 PM, at the Eastern Library, Davenport, IA.

National Alzheimer's Hotline: 800.272.3900


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing Exercise 11

One of my writing rituals involves cleaning. Usually, it’s cleaning my house, my room, or in this case, tidying up my computer files. In doing so, I came across this writing exercise. It is of interest because I messed up yesterday’s writing challenge for the first meeting of COMMUNITY WRITE NIGHT. The prompt was “What have you done this week?” and I was too embarrassed to mention the cleaning I’d been doing. Like, how do you write about washing salty footprints off your wood floor and make it interesting? So, I didn’t even try.

BUT, during my computer cleaning binge, I came across this item and I will share it in its natural, unedited state since NaNoWriMo was mentioned last night.

Writing exercise 11/20/17  Thanksgiving Gone Wrong

The doorbell rang, and I opened the door to find my turkey waiting for me in a white carboard box. This year’s turkey was not frozen, not fresh, not soaked in brine. Something totally new for us … smoked.

I opened the box, as per the urgent instructions stamped on top of the box, and was hit by the overpowering aroma of smoke. Great, I thought, I’ll have a smoky fridge, and no doubt a smoky house for at least a week. It had better be worth it.

I really had no reason to grouse about my husband’s novel selection. I certainly had not contributed my part in the planning of T Day. Other than obtaining pumpkin pie fixin’s. I’ve been too busy with plumping up my NaNoWriMo word count. Lots of things have had to slide by the wayside. Important things yes. Things that will come back to bite me I’m sure. But that’s just the breaks for November novel writing for someone who procrastinates for the rest of the year.

Last year I went to Bettendorf for a writer’s group. I was there by myself some afternoons. This year I’ve stayed home, drank coffee, stared at my notes, and hoped that I could make some sense out of the bits and pieces of the story I was trying to imagine.

I don’t like playing by the rules anyway, so nothing new there. This month is for me and I’ll get by the best that I can.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Discussion Questions for Unbecoming by R. Scherm

The WEST END BOOK CLUB will be on its own, without a librarian to help guide the book discussions, for the next six months. (That’s how many books were ordered ahead of time and are still available.) Many books include discussion questions specific to the book. Sometimes, in a pinch, I’ve seen librarians come up with a set of generic questions to get readers talking about the books they’ve read. I was lucky and found two sets of questions provided by the publisher, Penguin, that will work for the next meeting: Tuesday, Jan. 16th, 6:30-7:30 PM, at Fairmount Library, Davenport.

Discussion Questions for Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (Issued by the publisher.)

1. Discuss the meaning of the novel’s title. Who is unbecoming, how, why, in what ways?

2. Compare Grace’s relationship with Riley to that with Alls. Does she behave differently with them? What are the power dynamics?

3. Grace is a challenging narrator—unreliable and at times unlikeable. How did this affect the way you read the book?

4. Were you surprised by the book’s ending? What were your feelings about the way it ended?

5. Mystery and charisma are a crucial a part of Grace’s personality. Have you ever met someone like Grace?

6. What is the effect of the story being told from Grace’s point of view? How is that significant?

7. What did you take away from theme of the exploring?

1. What does Grace love about Riley and why is she drawn to him?
2. Riley paints buildings. What do his artistic choices say about his character?
3. Why is Grace’s time in New York important, and what does it teach her about herself and her relationship with Riley?
4. Grace is a self-professed liar but claims she gets no joy from it. Why, then, do you think she’s constantly avoiding telling the truth?
5. There are many thieves and liars in this book. Which acts are forgivable, and which are not?
6. What aspects of the heist and its aftermath unfold in the way Grace predicts? Which parts surprise her? 
7. In Alls, Grace finds something of a kindred spirit. What is it that they have in common? How is Alls like or unlike Riley?
8. Grace finally breaks down and tells her story—or most of it—to her coworker Hanna. What makes her choose Hanna as a confidante? What is Hanna’s response?
9. Alls comments that Grace shines a light that blinds others to who she really is. How can this quality be both a positive and a negative trait in a person?
10. Throughout the book, Grace has the sense that Riley is going to catch up with her and confront her. What did you expect would happen? 
11. The title of this book evokes multiple meanings. What does it mean to you? 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Traditions & Another Recipe

I’ve spent a fair amount of time over this past holiday season thinking about family traditions. My new daughter-in-law had asked me to tell her about my family’s traditions. She wanted to include them when we all got together.

My first reaction was, “What holiday traditions?” I honestly couldn’t think of one special family thing we did every year while I was growing up. We had Christmas trees. I imagine most were bought. Once, when my mom was older and living on the river, she and I went out searching the wild space between a field and a creek to find a likely specimen to cut down. Can’t get any fresher than that. But by that late date most of her fancy glass ornaments, the ones I remembered as a kid where gone, broken. Too many moves. Too much rough handling by a clumsy kid, who I’d rather not name. And some cats. Cats do love climbing trees and fragile glass objects don’t have much of a chance. Then there was the 1993 flood. Mom saved her photos and genealogy notebooks, but not much else. I guess I do have the last ornament, a glass ball with three faded stripes.

Then something clicked, and I went to my recipe box, a relic from my high school Home Economy class, and found a favorite card. Judging by the ink I used and the sad condition of the note card, it had to be one of the earliest recipes I collected—closing in on fifty years old. It came from my sister. At that time, she would have been a young farm wife who was out in the barn milking a cow every day. Scalding the whole milk would have been an important step. Her eggnog was wonderful and when I started my own family I began making a big batch every year. That tradition waned as the kids left home and, at some point, stopped all together. Store-bought eggnog filled in the gap until counting calories became more important.  

So, I had a recipe card that I hadn’t looked at for years and I tried making a big batch like I remembered doing—it was a total flop. Weak and wimpy, the only saving grace was using it steamed in a cappuccino.

I sat down to read the recipe card, really study it, because it didn’t make any sense. I remembered that I’d condensed the directions, so they would fit on the card. I didn’t remember all the mistakes, spelling and otherwise, I’d made. But there they were. I honestly don’t know how I managed working from this card all those years ago. I must have been good at improvising.

I passed on attempting any more Christmas eggnog, but I didn’t want to give up. There was New Year’s Eve to consider. I searched the internet, such a great thing to have, and found a recipe that had the essential spirit of my sister’s original recipe. I made a small batch and it was perfect.

My thanks to Alton Brown for a great recipe. It provided the last minute save for this one family tradition.

Find Alton Brown’s recipe here: