Friday, November 30, 2012

Siblings and Autism: Interview with Debra Cumberland

Siblings with Autism is a collection of 16 personal essays that revolve around the experience of having a sibling with autism. I read it this summer and was deeply moved by the stories. If you know anyone who has an autistic sibling this book would make a great addition to their home library: it is highly readable and may help them with their relationships and in understanding their own feelings. They'll certainly feel less alone.
From the publisher: What is it like to grow up with a sibling on the autism spectrum? What kind of relationship do such siblings have? How does that relationship change as the siblings get older?

In this moving collection of beautifully-written personal accounts, siblings from a variety of backgrounds, and in different circumstances, share their experiences of growing up with a brother or sister with autism. Despite their many differences, their stories show that certain things are common to the "sibling experience": the emotional terrain of looking on or being overlooked; the confusion of accommodating resentment, love, and helplessness; and above all the yearning to connect across neurological difference.

Siblings and Autism is a thought-provoking book that will appeal to anyone with a personal or professional interest in autism, including parents of siblings of children on the spectrum, teachers, counselors, and psychologists.
By way of disclaimer let me say that Debra Cumberland is a friend of mine and the review copy that I read is one that she gave me. We met in graduate school at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln back in the mid-1990s. Deb is now an English professor at Winona State University in Minnesota. In addition to Siblings and Autism, Deb is also the editor of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (Rodopi, 2010).

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to this project.
I’m an English professor at Winona State University where I teach creative writing and Victorian literature.

As a young girl, growing up in Storm Lake, Iowa, I was struck by how isolated my family felt with respect to my brother.  We seemed to be the only family in the world who had a child with autism. The books on my parents’ shelves, however, seemed to belie this fact—we had the Noah books, For the Love of Ann, and Barry Kaufman’s SonRise, as well as other, more clinical, texts.  Once we even watched a 60 Minutes episode on autism, so I vaguely realized that there must be other people out there who had children who were like my brother, and that I could not be the only girl who had a sibling with autism. But it certainly felt like it, living in a small town in the1970s. Sometimes people said, when I mentioned that I had a brother who was autistic, “Oh, what does he paint?” That would not be the first time that I encountered such confusion over what the “autism” classification meant.

How to classify my brother also led to problems in the classroom, where, once again, he did not fit in. At home, listening to my parents, I sensed what a struggle it was to keep my brother in a regular public school classroom. We went to family therapy sessions in Cherokee, which I hated, for I could sense, even at a young age, that the psychiatrists there blamed my brother’s autism on my mother. I, however, knew how much she loved him, knew that they were wrong, and could appreciate, everyday, the sacrifices and struggles my parents made to keep the family humming along.
I had felt prior to meeting this friend that no one else had ever had this experience.
It wasn’t until I went to a summer writing program as a high school student at Carleton College that I made a dear friend who also had a brother with autism and recognized what a dramatic difference it made to have someone to talk with, to understand the unique dynamic that a sibling relationship with a brother or sister with autism—or any other neurological or mental challenge—faced. I had felt prior to meeting this friend that no one else had ever had this experience. Now, so many decades later, I’ve become increasingly struck by how hard it would be today NOT to be aware of autism. Just driving down the streets of the town I live in I regularly see bill boards proclaiming how often a child is born with autism—now 1 in 88, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control—or notice advertisements on the cable access channel or in the paper for autism spectrum disorder groups. Now, everyone I meet seems to have heard of it, although the information they may have hold of may not be accurate. There has been an explosion of parent memoirs, the most famous right now being Jenny McCarthy’s. Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,  became an international bestseller. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about autism. There are websites, such as Pray For Autism Now, The question is, what are these blogs, memoirs, essays and websites saying? Whose are the stories being heard, and what are they saying?
These questions, and the desire to write about and understand my own story, compelled me to attend the fall 2005 Conference, “Autism and Representation” at Case Western Reserve. While there, I met [coeditor] Bruce Mills, who teaches English at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a son with autism and a neurotypical daughter. While we were talking on our way to the airport, we suddenly realized that my hometown of Storm Lake, Iowa was his as well! More remarkably, he remembered my brother. As the captain of his school patrol at West Elementary School, as a young boy of twelve responsible for guiding kindergartners through fellow sixth graders across streets, Bruce would leave the brick, two-story square building and see my brother on the corner of Hyland Drive and West Sixth Street, a somewhat rigid, reliable presence, ready to cross.
For us, our book arises from what we both have witnessed and experienced in different ways: the need for and the power of shared tales.
For us, our book—Siblings and Autism: Stories Spanning Generations and Cultures—arises from what we both have witnessed and experienced in different ways: the need for and the power of shared tales. While we were talking at the conference, we came to the realization that while there is an increasing explosion in memoirs by parents—as well as individuals with autism themselves—there has been far fewer explorations of the sibling relationship. There also has been little exploration (with the significant exception of Richard Roy Grinker’s excellent book, Unstrange Minds), of autism from a multi-cultural perspective. Bruce and I wanted to make a step toward addressing these gaps with our book. The first person accounts in Siblings and Autism provide a window not only to what it is like to grow up with a sibling with autism today, but also what it was like to grow up with a sibling in the era before the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Each essay is an account of two childhoods, that of the writer and their sibling.

What is autism?
Defined as a neurological disorder characterized by sensory over stimulation, difficulties in processing stimuli, and challenges in social interaction and communication, autism was first diagnosed by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger almost concurrently in 1943 during the birth of child psychiatry after World War II, a period when scientists began using medical knowledge to understand children’s behavior. Autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome, usually thought of as high-functioning autism) and more precisely the array of conditions that has been termed Autism Spectrum Disorders (or ASD) occurs in every country and affects every race and every class. It is generally regarded as highly heritable, and, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, its triad of impairments include “deficits” in social interactions, communication, and symbolic or imaginative play. Significantly, an autism diagnosis arises from close observation of behaviors, not from any blood analysis or, at least currently, from genetic testing.  However, with a range of educational and therapeutic interventions, the more debilitating effects of autism can be somewhat alleviated, although it is a life-long disorder. 

How did you approach this project?
We wanted the essays in the collection to be as diverse as possible—to span generations, cultures, ethnicities. We wanted the collection to provide a history, a sense of the way various generations have experienced growing up/aging with a sibling with autism. Because the history of autism encompasses a history of institutionalization, more than a few of the essays in the collection recall the day their sibling left home to live in an institution. Many of these essays, such as Anne Barnhill’s “Visiting Becky,” are heart-breaking in their depictions of the family driving away, and leaving the brother or sister behind.

In these essays, we sought writers within the United States and beyond, advertising in the publications of writing organizations, sibling networks, and autism agencies from around the world. The project took approximately four years.

Why siblings?
What tends to be lost in the midst of our discussions on autism are the voices of the individuals themselves, and their unique stories.  Autism is not a monolithic construct. The lives represented in this anthology—those of the siblings—are descendents of multiple cultural heritages, generations, and ethnicities. They are from a diverse class and personal lifestyles, reflecting multiple sensibilities. Most of the stories about autism tend to reflect a white, middle-class academic background, and one of the goals of this anthology was to present a more diverse reflection of the experience of autism on families.
We need other narratives, narratives that tell more complex, inclusive stories that combat the notion that autism can be cured, if you just love your child enough.
We need other narratives, narratives that tell more complex, inclusive stories that combat the notion that autism can be cured, if you just love your child enough—narratives offered by parents such as Jenny McCarthy with her “warrior mom” stories. Recent challenges to these narratives include autistic authors on blogs and websites and, which articulate that autism should be seen as a culture, much as people in the deaf community view themselves as part of a culture, and not as a problem. As a result, they say they do not wish to be “cured” and find talk about a cure threatening to their way of being in the world and their sense of individual identity.

The “warrior mom” tradition—where by dint of the mother’s unending hard work and sacrifice the child miraculously recovers—create another pernicious text, much like Leo Kanner’s “refrigerator mother” theory.  There, the mother created the autism by her inability to love, and so her child, too, could not love. The “warrior Mom” genre that we have now presumes that if you do not love your child enough, your child will not recover.  Such a message creates an added burden that nobody needs. It is simply another form of parent-blame.
Sibling stories, in contrast, tend to be full of the motif that they created some of the problems—that it was something that they did—or that there is a need, somehow, for them to compensate, that they must be the child that somehow “makes up” for the perceived deficiencies in the other child.
Sibling stories, in contrast, tend to be full of the motif that they created some of the problems—that it was something that they did—or that there is a need, somehow, for them to compensate, that they must be the child that somehow “makes up” for the perceived deficiencies in the other child. Thomas Caramagno moving tells of his quest to compensate by being a great intellect, a similar story told by Maureen McDonnell, who writes, “I have spent my life passing, proving that genetics are a fluke, that my parents aren’t incapable of raising children . . . Thanks to work and stubbornness, I've managed to fulfill the trappings of a successful child.” The urge to overcome comes with its own trappings of guilt as well as the often-present accompanying silence—how to explain the family narrative, particularly in a time when so little was known, and the very little that was known was so clearly ill-informed. Many of these essayist, such as Caramagno, were fortunate to have parents who were very much involved in trying to understand, and overturn, those pernicious narratives.

At their most poignant, sibling stories recount how to construct the obligation of caring for someone with a disability, and the struggles and complications involved in honoring that commitment, particularly with the realization that this reality shall, in all likelihood, remain constant. And, when dealing with the likelihood of a genetic component to autism, siblings must also consider the very real likelihood that their own children may, perhaps, also have autism.  Erica Nanes’, in her essay, “Family Resemblance,” confronts this question when her friend has a baby diagnosed with Downs’ Syndrome and decides to have an abortion since, “we wouldn’t be very good parents to a child like that.”  Nanes asks herself the same question:  If my only choice were a child with autism or none at all, what would I do? I don’t want to ever imagine the question. But it hovers, unanswered, nonetheless.” At its core, then, these essays ask the very real question of the nature of our obligations toward each other, as well as our obligations toward ourselves. Negotiating these boundaries can be extraordinarily difficult. There are no easy answers.
At its core, then, these essays ask the very real question of the nature of our obligations toward each other, as well as our obligations toward ourselves.
Personal essays can reach, and help us understand, these complex human ties and boundaries in a way that clinical studies cannot. For one thing, the personal essays can reach out and help us understand in ways that reach beyond potentially stigmatizing clinical language by focusing on the very real human stories. (We have a tendency as humans to love to focus on categories, rather than individuals). The personal essay reveals that all experiences are unique, that all responses are unique, and they also importantly point out the tremendous growth and understanding that has been reached in the past fifty years in understanding autism. Stories, as well, give us a human face to a problem that too often remains faceless. And it is the human face, the human story, that allows others to enter into the narrative, and appreciate the struggle. We lose our fear that is a creation of ignorance and through knowledge and empathy gain human connectedness.

While many of the essays in this anthology do have a similar trajectory—identifying difference, and the struggle to acknowledge, accept, and understand the difference—they reveal most tellingly the tremendous strides that we, as a society, have come to in understanding autism, as well as the distance we have yet to travel. Essays such as those by Erika Giles and Cara Watkins are among the many that focus on the lack of knowledge regarding autism in the 1950s, when next to no one knew anything about the disorder. Such a diagnosis invariably meant a life in an institution. The annual journey visiting her brother, as well as the accompanying feels of remorse and guilt, are movingly evoked in Giles’ “Robie.” Lindsay Fisch’s essay, however, shows how much more knowledge and understanding people have of the condition. In this essay, Fisch calls the fire department to come rescue her brother from his entrapment in the laundry chute, and when she says, “He’s autistic,” she can, amazingly, count on the fact that volunteer at 911 will know what she means. Ten years ago, no one could have felt that way.

How did you go about putting the book together?
We contacted autism agencies from around the world, hoping to receive international stories; the fact that our efforts yielded only a few essays does, we think, represent the great need for these stories, as well as the cultural and societal forces that make these stories difficult to tell: the sense of guilt, the sense of blame, that all too often is the legacy of a diagnosis of autism.  Essays such as Helen McCabe’s “My Family Has Two Hearts,” and Aparna Das’ “Life with Runi,” as well as Alison Wilde’s “Siblings Aren’t Doing it For Themselves,” represent a start at placing the experience of autism within a cultural context, revealing the cultural biases that exist. Autism, for instance, was not diagnosed in China until 1982, according to McCabe, and the inherent understanding remains that the condition is a legacy for some type of family wrongdoing. In Das’ essay, Das is uncertain that she will be able to find someone who can understand her situation (a not uncommon feeling) and when she does, her sister with autism moves in with the family—a response that works well for them, but is much less likely in a society such as the United States with its strong emphasis (for good or ill) on leaving home and setting up an independent, more nuclear and less extended family.
We need a more multicultural, global, understanding of autism, which reflects our current awareness that health, medicine, and disability are social constructs, that they are culturally coded.
We need a more multicultural, global, understanding of autism, which reflects our current awareness that health, medicine, and disability are social constructs, that they are culturally coded. The only book to the best of our knowledge that has explored autism within a cultural context, and how that is defined, would be Richard Roy Grinker’s Unstrange Minds. How is autism understood—or not—in other cultures and countries? How visible is it? How has our understanding of it changed, in terms of family dynamics, across generations?  How do families, and siblings in particular, respond to these very human and very real challenges?

What do we hope to accomplish?
Many of the essays in Siblings and Autism have a similar trajectory—identifying differences and the struggle to acknowledge, accept, and understand those differences. I think that the book is a testament to how far we have come in understanding autism. Now, for instance, when I talk about having a brother with autism, people nod—they don’t say, “What does he paint?”

We also feel that personal stories can represent, and help us understand, these complex human ties and tensions in a way that clinical studies cannot. For one thing, such writing can be the means of reaching beyond potentially stigmatizing clinical language by conveying lived experiences in vivid ways. The personal essay reveals that, though stories may share common plotlines, the individual voice has its own inflections and lyrical power.
Art is empathy. While the goal of this volume is to collect the work by siblings and to foster empathy and understanding to those who seek it, it also aims to recognize these writers’ valuable contributions to literature as a whole—to underline connections rather than to isolate differences.
Art is empathy. While the goal of this volume is to collect the work by siblings and to foster empathy and understanding to those who seek it, it also aims to recognize these writers’ valuable contributions to literature as a whole—to underline connections rather than to isolate differences. When we use the term “empathy” in relation to this writing and our book, in fact, we have even more in mind, i.e., a notion of creative scholarship that often combines research with experiential knowledge. Mark Osteen, organizer of the conference where Bruce and I first met, defines this work as empathetic scholarship. These critical and creative endeavors, he argues, “[encompass] the broader goals of disability studies: to produce and disseminate work that combines scholars’ personal and professional lives in mutually beneficial ways and also makes a difference in the non-academic world” (“Introduction” 8).  In short, these essays consistently demonstrate an ardent effort to connect, to understand our common humanity, and to find one’s place among others.

While there is great value in critiquing our understanding of what is “normal” and in seeing the contributions of those who are neurologically atypical, it is also important to realize that doing so does not—and cannot—eradicate the challenges of those with neurological disorders or differences, however we choose to speak of it. Reading and reflecting upon well told (or some times less frequently told) stories, however, can illuminate how part of our problem lies in consistently thinking of ourselves in isolation from others. Our shared work, then, is the toil of understanding, the labor of living with and sharing our different ways of knowing in the world. To live together in this space, we believe that there is the need to hear and to honor these stories, all of them.

What are the most common misconceptions about Autism?
The whole notion that you can cure a child of autism if you work hard enough, and love that child enough is, in my mind, a fresh, modern form of parent-blaming—a new, insidious modern twist on Bettelheim’s mother-blaming.
I think one of the most insidious is that autism can be cured. It can’t. I have read in many places that if only you love your child enough—or pray hard enough—you can cure autism. Jenny McCarthy’s books espouse this theory. The whole notion that you can cure a child of autism if you work hard enough, and love that child enough is, in my mind, a fresh, modern form of parent-blaming—a new, insidious modern twist on Bettelheim’s mother-blaming.

Another common misconception is that vaccines cause autism. They don’t.

What books or websites do you recommend?
Sibling websites include The Sibling Support Project, or "Sibs," a site for brothers or sisters of disabled children or adults.

Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families by Sandra L. Harris and Beth A. Glasberg (Woodbine 2003).

Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism by Richard Roy Grinker (Basic Books 2008) is on of the best discussions of autism out there.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Deb. How can people find your book?

Siblings and Autism is available for order at your local bookstore, Amazon, or B& or you may find it through your library.

Siblings and Autism: Stories Spanning Generations and Cultures 
Debra L. Cumberland and Bruce E. Mills, eds.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84905-831-5

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I don't know how Random House got around the legal issues, but for the first time a selection of Willa Cather's letters is going to be published!

For decades scholars have bemoaned the fact that in her will, Willa Cather forbade the publication of her letters. Some believe that this restriction has had a negative impact on scholarship as well as on popular enthusiasm for Cather's works. It has certainly withheld from the public a more well-rounded understanding of this great American writer.

The expected publication date is April 16, 2013
A literary event: the first publication of one of America's most consistently admired and studied writers. Willa Cather, wanting only her work to speak for her, clearly forbade the publication of her letters in her will. But now, over sixty-five years after her death, her literary reputation as secure as a reputation can be, the letters have become available for publication. Here then are 564 letters, nearly 20 percent of the entire cache, from the funny reports of 1880s Red Cloud life she wrote as a teenager, through her college years at the University of Nebraska, her time as a journalist, then novelist, in Pittsburgh and New York, to the letters of the 1940s when she despaired of her aging body and the events of WWII. The voice is strikingly consistent with the voice of her fiction: confident, elegant, detailed, open-hearted, concerned with profound ideas, but at the same time unfiltered, full of small fibs, emotional outbursts, inconsistencies, and the joys and sorrows of the moment. A deep pleasure to read, this volume is certain to find an excited audience among scholars and readers alike.
The publication of this book will be a boon for readers and scholars of Willa Cather and you can bet I'll be standing out front of my local bookstore the morning this book releases to get my copy.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather 
Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
Random House/Knopf, expected April 16, 2013
Hardcover, $37.50
ISBN: 0307959309 (ISBN13: 9780307959300)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cozy Christmas Recommendations from Missy

I've had to exercise great restraint to not constantly badger my friend Missy into starting her own book blog. Missy is a great reader of mysteries and is the one who turned me on to reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon back when it first came out and we were working together at Borders. That book is one of my favorites and you can bet we both hand-sold the heck out of it. She's also the one who got me hooked on Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series. 

When Missy tells me I need to read a book, I read it.

However, I don't read very many cozies, but they are Missy's specialty and she's graciously put together a list of Christmas & Holiday themed cozies for readers of WildmooBooks.

About her list Missy wrote, "
I hope it brings holiday merriment to a reader!  I have read 10 of the 15, but feel confident recommending all the titles.  There are certainly many, many more Christmas cozies out there, but these I have read, own, or follow the author and always enjoy their books."

Without further delay, here's the list! 

(Book blurbs are from the publishers.)

Holiday Buzz by Cleo Coyle (2012)

Holiday time is party time in New York City, but after a sparkling winter bash ends with a murder, Village Blend coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi vows to put the killer on ice…

At the Great New York Cookie Swap, pastry chefs bake up their very best for charity. Clare is in charge of the beverage service, and her famous Fa-la-la-la Lattes make the gathering even merrier. But her high spirits come crashing down to earth, when she discovers the battered body of a hard-working baker’s assistant.

Police suspect a serial attacker whose escalating crimes have become known as “The Christmas Stalkings.” Clare’s boyfriend, NYPD detective Mike Quinn, finds reason to believe even more sinister forces are involved. Clare isn’t so sure—and when she finds a second bludgeoned baker, she becomes a target. Now Clare is spending the holiday season pouring over clues, and she’s not going to rest until justice is served.
The Christmas Carol Murders by Christopher Lord (2012)
It’s the holiday season in Dickens Junction, Oregon. Local bookstore owner, Simon Alastair, is getting ready for the community’s annual celebration of Charles Dickens’ well-known story. But when a mysterious stranger shows up in the Junction and is murdered hours later, Simon begins to suspect that his little community has been targeted for destruction by a shadowy organization.

With the support of Zach, a dashing young magazine reporter, Simon decides to investigate the crime himself. When a second murder follows, Simon must confront the worst question of all: which of his friends and business associates is a ruthless murderer?

The Christmas Carol Murders is the first of an exciting new cozy mystery series combining the atmosphere of a classic Agatha Christie puzzle, the deft touch of Charlotte MacLeod, a hint of Oscar Wilde’s humor, and the literary spirit of the great Charles Dickens.
A Killer’s Christmas in Wales by Elizabeth J. Duncan (2011)
As the townsfolk of the Welsh valley town of Llanelen settle in for the snowiest winter in twenty-five years, an American stranger arrives. Harry Saunders charms the ladies, one of them in particular: Evelyn Lloyd, the town’s former postmistress, who was left comfortably off after the death of her husband. After Mrs. Lloyd invests a good deal of money with him, Harry goes missing, as does her money. His body is soon discovered outside the walls of Conwy Castle, and Mrs. Lloyd is implicated in the murder.
Although Penny Brannigan and her business partner, Victoria Hopkirk, are busy overseeing the grand opening of their new spa, that doesn’t stop Mrs. Lloyd from desperately seeking Penny’s help to prove her innocence. It’s quite possible that Harry made other enemies while in Llanelen and Penny’s investigation unfolds while she juggles her work at the spa, her growing relationship with Detective Inspector Davies, and the Christmas window competition that she signed up to judge.
With A Killer's Christmas in Wales, Elizabeth J. Duncan delivers a delightful holiday-themed mystery.
The Gingerbread Bump-Off by Livia J. Washburn (2011)

Not only will Phyllis Newsom's house be featured in the annual Christmas Jingle Bell Tour of Homes, she also has a Christmas Eve bridal shower and a New Year's Eve wedding to bake goodies for. But like her tasty treats, she rises to the occasion.

Before the tour gets under way, Phyllis makes a gruesome discovery on her porch: someone has tried to kill her friend. As Santa's naughty list gets longer, Phyllis tries to catch a half-baked killer.

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop edited by Otto Penzler (2010)
Each year, for the past seventeen years, Otto Penzler, owner of the legendary Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, has commissioned an original story by a leading mystery writer. The requirements were that it be a mystery/ crime/suspense story, that it be set during the Christmas season, and that at least some of the action must take place in The Mysterious Bookshop. These stories were then produced as pamphlets, 1,000 copies, and given to customers of the bookstore as a Christmas present.Now, all of these stories have been collected in one volume—Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop. Some of the tales are humorous, others suspenseful, and still others mystifying. This charming one-of-a-kind collection is a perfect Christmas gift, appropriate for all ages and tastes.
The Diva Cooks a Goose by Krista Davis (2010)
A Scrooge steals presents right from under Sophie Winston's family Christmas tree. Then her sister-in-law's father show's up with a diva girlfriend just a month after his separation. More than one person is thinking of committing a merry murder-until it actually happens! With many under suspicion for the deadly deed, can Sophie find the murderer and restore the Christmas spirit before it's too late?

Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle (2009)
It's Christmastime-and when manager and head barista Clare Cosi finds a red- suited body in the snow, she adds solving Santa's slaying to her coffeehouse menu. Soon, a few clues convince her his death was something more than a mugging gone awry.

With Clare's NYPD Detective boyfriend distracted by his own cold case, Clare discovers on her own that Santa had a list that he was checking twice- and the folks on it were not nice. But Clare had better watch out, because if she fails to stop this stone cold killer, she may just get the biggest chill of her life. 

The Christmas Cookie Killer by Livia J. Washburn (2009)
It's Christmastime in Weatherford, Texas, and retired teacher-cum-amateur sleuth Phyllis Newsom is looking forward to finishing up what has been one unlucky year. But she won't be hanging up her apron quite yet, because this year's Christmas bake-off is going to be cutthroat.

Phyllis would like to think she's just entering the Christmas cookie contest for fun. But that's not exactly true. She's can't imagine anyone beating her delicate, snowflake-shaped lime sugar cookies--although her friend Carolyn's pecan shortbread, along with her neighbor Mrs. Simmons's ginger-doodles, might give her a run for her money.

Then, after her annual Christmas cookie exchange, Phyllis heads over to elderly Mrs. Simmons's home and finds the poor thing in a pile of lime sugar cookies, strangled by the belt of her own bathrobe. With a number of names on Santa's naughty list, this case is a cookie Phyllis means to crumble....
There Goes Santa Claus by Nancy Mehl (2008)
But a few days before December 25, Ivy and her husband Amos are awakened by noises on their rooftop. Amos’s joke that Santa Claus must have arrived early loses its humor when a body goes flying past their second-story window. A look outside reveals two legs covered in red velvet trousers and black boots sticking out of a snow bank! Ivy and Amos are even more surprised to find they belong to a dead man dressed as Santa Claus. The story circulates quickly through the small town of Winter Break that Ivy and Amos have killed Santa. Who is the dead man and why was he on their roof? Ivy has a Christmas mystery to solve that will bring a satisfying conclusion to the Ivy Towers Mystery series.
Christmas is Murder by C.S. Challinor (2008)
Christmas in the English countryside -- what could be more charming? Not even a blizzard can keep Rex Graves away from Swanmere Manor, a historic hotel in East Sussex. But instead of Christmas cheer, the red-haired Scottish barrister finds a dead guest. Was it a stroke that killed old Mr. Lawry? Or an almond tart laced with poison?

When more guests die, all hopes for a jolly holiday are dashed. Worst of all, the remote mansion is buried under beastly snow. No one can leave. Confined with a killer, no one can enjoy their tea without suspicion and scrutiny. Rex takes it upon himself to solve the mystery, but the most intriguing evidence -- a burnt biography of President George W. Bush -- offers few clues. Could the killer be the sherry-swilling handyman? The gay antiques dealer with a biting wit? The quarreling newlyweds? Surely, it's not Helen D'arcy, the lovely lass Rex seems to be falling for....
The Christmas Train by David Baldacci (2002) **not a mystery, but fantastic holiday read**
Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington D.C. to L.A in time for Christmas. Forced to travel by train, he begins a journey of rude awakenings, thrilling adventures and holiday magic. He has no idea that the locomotives pulling him across America will actually take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart, as he rediscovers people's essential goodness and someone very special he believed he had lost.

The Christmas Train is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischief ... and shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.
Sugarplum Dead by Carolyn Hart (2000)
It's getting to look a lot like Christmas on the sea island of Broward's Rock, South Carolina. At the popular Death on Demand mystery bookstore, owner Annie Darling's energetic Yuletide preparations have to be put on hold thanks to several rather inconvenient distractions including a slew of family woes ... and murder.
Annie's mother-in-law Laurel, not normally the straightest of arrows anyway, has taken to chatting up ghosts in the local graveyard. Across the island in a spacious, spooky mansion, ancient onetime movie star Marguerite Dumaney Ladson has called together all her living kin and their multitude of exes for her gala combination Xmas/birthday bash. Among the honored guests are two that Annie could well do without: her errant father, whom she hasn't seen in twenty five years, and Dr. Emory Swanson, Laurel's guide down "The Golden Path."
Like Laurel, wealthy old Rita Dumaney Ladson has fallen for Swanson's new-age-pseudo-occult gobbledygook. The question is: how are the gathered relatives going to react to the grande dame's announcement that she's leaving her fortune to the charismatic charlatan's Evermore Foundation? Not well, apparently,since a murder follows right on the heels of Rita's shocking revelation. And the finger of suspicion seems to be pointing straight at Annie Darling's recently arrived deadbeat dad.
Annie can feel no loyalty toward the father she's never really known, but she doesn't believe for a minute he's guilty. And when a second murder puts her conflicted emotions into an even more chaotic tailspin, Annie realizes that she will need all the help her easy-going PI. husband Max can offer to solve a related pair of homicides. Because, in this season of giving, fate is giving her more major headaches and a killer is giving her more corpses than even the normally unflappable Annie Darling may be able to handle.
A Little Yuletide Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain (1998)
Jessica Fletcher is planning to spend a cozy Christmas in Cabot Cove. But when Rory Brent is found shot to death on his farm, there will be no peace on earth until his killer is found. Snooping into the small town's past for a motive, Jessica is determined to deliver the killer before Christmas. The trouble is, the next sound she hears this silent night may be a scream of her own.

The Christmas Crimes at Puzzle Manor by Simon Brett (1991)
This crime novel invites reader participation. Included are pictures of the evidence and an intricate series of puzzles, quizzes, crosswords and riddles which challenge the reader to outwit the hero of the novel and discover the murderer first. 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) **not a mystery, but timeless treasure**

One of the best-loved and most quoted stories of "the man who invented Christmas"-English writer Charles Dickens-A Christmas Carol debuted in 1843 and has touched millions of hearts since. Cruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn't like. . .and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill. Experience a true Victorian Christmas!
You've probably seen a stage or movie adaptation, now's time to read or reread the book!

If you have a favorite Christmas or Holiday Season cozy that's not listed above, 
please add it in the comments section below for other readers to discover. 

Happy Holiday Reading!
Christmas gift book ideas.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reading List Avoidance?

Reading challenges and blogs are usually a happy topic, but today I'd like to talk about a different sort of reading challenge: Reading List Avoidance. This is not the same as reading burnout or general reading avoidance that can often impact a reader after an exceptionally exquisite reading experience. This is all about the avoidance of reading from a list of books. And not just any list, but one happily created by the reader who is now doing the avoidance.

When I first signed up for The Classics Club in September I had visions of reading two books per month from the list. Or at least 1.5 books per month. I have five years, after all. I read one book, started another, and then it hit me: Reading List Avoidance. It's only been a few months since I made the list and already I've become resistant to reading from it.  I love making lists, but following through on the actual reading of them is another story.

It's not that I have a blatant resentment of this list, like, say, a non-bookworm high school student facing required reading in English class. These are books that I've longed to read, but now that I've put them on a list, other books suddenly start to look awfully appealing. Books on display at the library or bookstore that normally wouldn't catch my eye now become the book that I really want to/have to read in the moment.

I first discovered that I was prone to Reading List Avoidance when I was in graduate school. The masters program I attended required students to take coursework in three areas of concentration and comprehensive written exams in two other areas. The exams entailed reading a lengthy list of books on a topic or period and then sitting for a timed, hand-written test.

For my areas of concentration I chose Great Plains Literature and then petitioned the department to create my own comprehensive reading list on Lesbian Literature. Creating that list was super fun. This was in pre-internet days, so it involved flipping through lots of books and periodicals and actually talking with people like librarians and professors to create a fairly comprehensive and historically meaningful list.

However, as soon as my committee approved the list, the actual reading of it quickly became work. But I made it through and since none of my advisers were especially well-read in lesbian lit, they chose to execute the exam orally (I know), so it was more like a conversation between four bookworms than a scary test. I wish I still had that list, but, alas, I cannot find it.

Anyway, my point being is that while it was great fun to make a list of classics that I've been wanting to read--and still do want to read--now I'm resistant to reading from this list. I was at the library this weekend and had a stack of books in my arms before I realized what I was doing: Reading List Avoidance. I thought about all the unread books I already had at home, some of which are on that self selected classics list. I put the library books back and came home to my own book shelves, but I've yet to start reading my next classic.

Do you suffer from Reading List Avoidance? If so, how do you psych yourself out of it?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lucy Gayheart: Thougths & Comments

My Thoughts
More than any of the other Cather novels that I've read this year, Lucy Gayheart has been the biggest surprise. I first read this one twenty years ago when I was in my mid-twenties, but its one that I never re-read. I had only vague memories of it. I recall thinking that Lucy was a failed Thea Kronborg, that she's an impulsive, selfish young woman ruined by a selfish, middle aged man, and surrounded by others who don't see her, but rather only see the picture that they want to see of her. There were times when I confused Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark. The first couple of times I read The Song of the Lark I kept waiting for "the affair" that never came about. I'll never make that mistake again.

With this reading I was much more engaged with Lucy than the first time around. In fact, I was a little blown away by how relentlessly this story revolves around feelings and thoughts. A lot has changed in the twenty years since that first reading: I have had my heart royally broken, old friendships have changed, and I've experienced blind rage a time or two (but thankfully not when skating on a river). In other words, I can relate so much more to Lucy's feelings--her desire to run away, to be alone--which is something I couldn't have admitted to back then. It's all so raw. Cather does an amazing job of showing Lucy's feelings, and doing so through a lens of looking back somehow makes the feelings more painful and less self-indulgent at the same time.

In some ways I could relate to and understand parts of all of the characters much more this time around. Each and every one serves a definite purpose in revealing how Lucy's feelings and thoughts are the primary motivating force of her life, which most of the people around her cannot understand. But Mrs. Ramsay has a clue. She says,
Nothing really matters but living. Get all you can out of it. I'm an old woman, and I know. Accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second. Sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint ourselves; but the thing is, to go right on living. You've hardly begun yet. Don't let a backward spring discourage you. There's a long summer before you, and everything rights itself in time (139).

Things I've Been Pondering
I remember in class we discussed whether or not Lucy's drowning was accidental or a suicide. Twenty years ago I was on the side that thought it was a suicide (or, more accurately, I didn't really care. I didn't like Lucy or the novel all that much and was just happy to be done with it). Now I don't think it was a suicide. Lucy's blind rage is clearly shown in her last argument with her sister, her stomp out to the lake, her shock in Gordon's unfriendly dismissal of her, her blindness to changes in the river she's about to skate out onto. She's in a blind rage. She's a person of feelings and thoughts, and this time they've blinded her to the dangers around her. Perhaps her feelings have always blinded her and kept her from fully living in the present.

Perhaps Cather was saying that there was no longer a place for the gentle artist of feeling in a world that has become more enamored with business men like Harry Gordon, even if he is living a life sentence for the choices he's made. And the saddest thing of all is that even through Gordon has come to have an understanding, there's no one in his life, no children or younger people, to which he can pass on his wisdom. He's apparently going to take it to the grave. People in Haverford may still talk about Lucy, but they do it with that "confidential glance" that smacks of gossip and judgement.

And Mrs. Ramsay's wise words above? Was Lucy better off dying with the feeling that, "She was young, she was strong, she would show them they couldn't crush her" (167)? Did she get all she could out of life? Was it "right" that she died young, before having to experience further disillusion and heartache?

Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of Lucy Gayheart? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it's just a sentence. Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Top Ten Books I'd Want On A Deserted Island

Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. 
I've never participated in a meme before and thought it was high time I give one a shot.

Top Ten Books I'd Want On A Deserted Island 
selected from my bookshelves 

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker: My favorite novel and the book that truly triggered my reading addiction. I'd pack the New Annotated edition by Leslie S. Klinger because of all the fun & fascinating information it contains. Plus it has pictures.

2. One of Ours by Willa Cather: for the last few years this has been my favorite Cather novel. Some readers think Claude Wheeler is a whiner, but I love the way Cather writes this story of a misunderstood boy who grows up without anyone around him having a similar temperament or who could provide the stimulation that would support his sensitivities and natural inclinations. If you read this novel on the surface level, it's still a good story, but you miss so much. 

3. A Sense of Honor by James Webb: my favorite Marine story. The opening scene of Chapter One where Bill Fogarty runs the seawall is one of my favorite scenes in fiction. This scene alone would motivate me to stay in fighting shape for whatever may come on my desert island.

4. Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia: because I still love flipping through the editon I've been carrying around for twenty-five years now. May have to rethink this one as I might be driven mad by knowledge of books and authors I may never get to read, but it would certainly help me read the books avavailable to me at a much deeper level.

5. The Hammonds of Redcliffe by Carol Bleser: a history of my partner Laura's family that I'd like to read one of these days. In the copy we have someone stuck a review by Jean Strouse ripped from the pages of Newsweek (dated September 28, 1981) that says the book is "social history that reads like a novel."

6. The Swarm by Frank Schatzing: I've had this one on my shelves for about two years and need to get to it already. It's a big, thick thriller about something bad going down in the world's oceans. I'm sure it would scare the crap out of me even more if I were on a desert island. May have to rethink this one, too, as it might inhibit me from swimming out to the ship that will eventually anchor off my island....

7. Typee by Herman Melville: for obvious reasons. Melville's best-seller, loosely based on his real life experiences as a sailor held captive on an island in the South Seas for several months. Its one of those books I had to speed-read in grad school (i.e., skim in my case) and only remember the vaguest details.

8. War & Peace by Tolstoy: because I'd probably finally read it. Or use it for insulation if my desert island happens to be cold.

9. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson: I don't read much poetry but I regularly read Emily Dickinson. On the island I could aim to memorize a poem a day or something like that

10. Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng: I read this memoir in the late 80s and was deeply moved by Cheng's experience and her spirit. She lost everything in China's cultural revolution and spent six years in solitary confinement. I was thrilled to hear her speak a few years after having read the book. I've often wanted to re-read it, but am afraid of my first impression being tarnished, but I will probably keep it on my shelf forever. Just seeing her face on the cover makes me feel good and like I can overcome anything.

What books would be on your list? Leave a comment and let me know!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cicero, IL: Birthplace of Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway. Where was he born?

If your answer is Oak Park, IL, you'd be wrong. At least according to the town of Cicero, IL.

Check it out:
Picture taken on 11/3/2012

The first time I noticed Cicero, IL claiming ownership of Hemingway was sometime in the 1990s. I was then living in Nebraska or Nevada, but home for a visit and driving around the old neighborhood when I was surprised to see light-pole banners proclaiming Cicero as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. I actually pulled over to make sure I was reading correctly. I was and the banners made me laugh.

Everyone knows that Hemingway was born and raised in Oak Park, IL, right?  Wait.  Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the Ernest Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park that I had visited a bunch of times and even volunteered at while in college had gotten something wrong?

Cicero is know for its corruption and racism stretching back to the 1920s when it became the headquarters for Al Capone's business. Then there was the notorious Cicero Race Riot in 1951 and by the 1960s even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was advised to avoid a Civil Rights March in town. More recently Mayor Betty Loren-Maltese has graced the headlines with her conviction and incarceration over an insurance scam.

And now we can add literary corruption as well.

I had done some research back in the 90s after I saw those banners and learned that Oak Park had once been part of what was a much larger Cicero, but over the decades the Town of Cicero was whittled down in size by annexation from Chicago and various neighborhoods splintering off.

When Hemingway was born in 1899 his birth house was technically within the boundaries of what was then Town of Cicero. In 1901, however, Oak Park (and other neighborhoods) ceded from Cicero to became its own village. You can read about it here on the Town of Cicero's website. If you visit the link, you'll notice that the town's website also claims Hemingway as a native son, but says nothing about the more challenging and shameful aspects of its history.

Talk about white washing.

I had thought that the town's claim on Hemingway was a one time thing, something done in the past to help spruce up the image of the town, but due to early voting, I learned this weekend that it was still going on. On Saturday I went to vote in the town of Berwyn, the closest polling place to my house, but the line was out the door. I stood there for about 20 minutes and the line did not move. So I drove on to my old hometown of Cicero, where there were two early voting locations.

As I was driving to the polling place the town sign pictured above stating that Cicero is the birthplace of Hemingway caught my eye. I had to laugh and couldn't resist pulling over to take a picture. I couldn't believe they were still advertising this shady half-truth. The sign is in front of the old town hall building, which was located there from 1903-2008.

Hemingway birth home (source: Yelp)
Technically, I suppose even legally, the Town of Cicero can claim him as one of their own, but it seems, at best, rather desperate. I claimed white washing above, but I think there's also some kind of twisted class issue at work here.

The home in which Hemingway was born is clearly in Oak Park, about five miles away from Cicero. And for those of you unfamiliar with the area, Cicero is traditionally a blue collar kind of town. The houses are primarily modest cottages with some apartment buildings thrown in. Oak Park, on the other hand, is a much wealthier suburb filled with classic Victorian homes and mansions designed by famous architects. Frank Llyod Wright had his studio in Oak Park. 

Gangsters might have done business in Cicero, but they lived in Oak Park and Forest Park. But I digress.

Let's just say that no one who lives in the Chicago area would ever confuse Cicero and Oak Park. I am certainly not saying that a working class town cannot produce a world class writer, but what I am trying to get to is that Cicero is not claiming its own heritage, but rather trying to ride on the coat tails of the real story and, in doing so, is mucking up literary history. I can understand not glorifying the gangster past or the rampant racism, but why not celebrate the earlier Eastern European immigrants who made Cicero their home or the more recent Hispanic immigrants who are building lives for themselves?

The argument for civic pride is pretty weak and, personally, I'd feel rather duped if I were a budding literary enthusiast living in Cicero and took pride in the fact that Hemingway was born there only to find out that it was a really big stretch of the truth.

I called the Hemingway Foundation to get their take on the matter and was told that Oak Park had been an unincorporated part of Cicero, and that even back when it officially ceded people understood the area to be Oak Park. The Town of Cicero was invited to make a donation to the Foundation but never responded to the overture. Apparently Cicero still does not play well with others.

What do you think of this issue of a town claiming an author on such shaky grounds. Does it matter?
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