Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

If you enjoy reading history, take a look at this book!  We hear a lot about the founding fathers but not as much about the rolesfounding of women during the pre-Revolutionary period, the war, and George Washington’s terms in office.

The book begins with the story of Eliza Pinckney, mother of two outstanding patriots, who ran three plantations – at the age of sixteen!  Not only was she successful in her task; she gloried in introducing new crops to her fields.

Kitty Greene was the wife of General Nathanael Greene, the hero of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.  Her lively personality helped to raise morale among American troops, and, after the war, she played a key role in the invention of the cotton gin.

Martha Washington, who was with her husband in those difficult days at Valley Forge, helped the soldiers in many ways.  Abigail Adams’ letters show her grasp of politics and serve as a major historical resource.  Benjamin Franklin’s wife was among the many women handling business matters while their husbands were away at war, on diplomatic missions, or running the new nation.

During Washington’s first term in office, he became so discouraged that he wrote a farewell address.  Jefferson and Hamilton feared that the nation was not yet strong enough to survive without his leadership, but it was a woman, Eliza Powel, who convinced him to accept another term.

Founding Mothers shows the difficulties of women’s lives in this period – economic hardships, the dangers of living in a nation at war, the limitations on rights for women, and their loneliness when husbands were away from home, sometimes for years at a time.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Orchard House by Tara Austen Weaver

orchardThe author and her mother see an overgrown yard and rundown house with gardening potential – and her mother buys the property, after an afternoon filching blackberries from the bushes there.

Making this unruly land an orderly place of vegetable plots and fruit trees turns into a daily ordeal.  Weaver’s mother, with her unbending work ethic, is up to it, at least at the beginning, but she is aging, and after a serious back injury, the author has to practically chase her mom away from gardening chores, and much of it falls on her.  After all, Weaver has her own vision of the place to maintain, one of an inviting home and yard for nieces to play in, and a gathering point for family and friends.

Weaver uses the setting as backdrop to her ruminations about her relationships with her mother and brother.  Their mom had to be the single parent raising them, and as such she has distanced herself from certain emotions.  Working the gardens allows the author to reconnect with her mother to some degree.

The author also learns the value of community, whether it’s from close friends or plant experts, and finds insight from others as she struggles with the garden, her mother, and herself.

Orchard House reminds me of another book I read several years back – This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow, in which she describes her trials in creating a garden next to the Hudson River.  I would recommend both.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Mockingbird Next Door; Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills

mockingbirdIf you haven’t read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, read it before reading this biography.  It’s one of the most-beloved 20th-century novels and one that everyone should read!

In 2001, Marja Mills, a Chicago Tribune reporter, had an assignment to do research for an article that would fit in with To Kill a Mockingbird’s selection for the “One Book, One Chicago” program (similar to Greensboro’s “One City, One Book”).  The editor told her, “Monroeville, Alabama…It’s Harper Lee’s hometown.  We know she doesn’t give interviews. But I think it’s worth going there anyway.”

This book tells how Marja Mills did get an interview with Harper Lee.  That was just the beginning of a warm relationship.  Harper Lee and her sister Alice eventually encouraged Marja to rent the house next to the one they lived, and she became one of their close friends.  From eating in informal restaurants and washing clothes in the laundromat to fishing trips, she accompanied Harper Lee on many an excursion, and they spent hours in conversation.  Marja also spent a great deal of time with Alice, who continued to practice law into her 90’s, and with the sisters’ friends.  If the idea of spending time with Harper Lee in Monroeville has any appeal to you, this is as close as you’re likely to get!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Fifty Things To Do When You Turn Fifty edited by Ronnie Sellers

Turning fifty is not a death sentence, the end of the road, or being officially old – even if you are cleared to joinfifty AARP.  Passing this landmark year is more like a new door being opened, and in this helpful collection of essays, you’ll find lots of encouragement and tips to live into your ripe new age.

The contributors here cover many of the issues of the newly aged – how one looks, facilities and memory, your finances, and career ideas.  You have Garrison Keillor starting us off with a firm stance on what you should do post-50 (stop complaining, give up certain things, lose some weight).  Diane Von Furstenberg chimes in on looks, what to wear, and one’s personal bearing.  Suze Orman exhorts the reader to lose the mortgage, told in her best no nonsense manner.  And Harold Kushner tells us of the advantages of growing older, of having different perspectives.

There are sections on health, others on spirituality.  There are essays on the importance of having fun and taking risks.  The book is a nice grab bag of musings on stepping over the threshold of fifty, told by those who have done it.

Some of the essays are pretty common sensical.  Also, bear in mind the publication date (2005).  Other than that, there’s plenty of food for thought here.

(William Hicks, Information Services, and newly fifty)

97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

97 Orchard is a study of immigrant food ways and how they97 orchard influenced American eating habits.  The title of the book refers to the address of a tenement building in the Lower East Side of New York City that dates back to the 1860s.  The building now houses the Tenement Museum.

The author focuses on these immigrant groups – the Irish, Germans, German and Eastern European Jews, and Italians – who lived at 97 Orchard Street.  All of these groups experienced depravity at some point during their assimilation into American life.  They also caught the scorn of native-born Americans, who viewed their folkways, particularly the food, with some trepidation.

Eventually, each group stamped their mark on the prevailing culture of the Lower East Side, and their food habits spread beyond the confines of this neighborhood to become commonplace in the United States.

I had heard this book spoken of on the Diane Rehm Show last week.  I don’t know if it was a rerun or not, but the subject matter was interesting.  Read 97 Orchard if you like food history, or New York, or both.  It will give you a hearty respect of the hardy people who settled the Lower East Side.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

dirt workWhen hiking a trail in a national or state park, I sometimes wonder who puts these walkways together.  Some trails look pretty straight forward; others seem to require some engineering (the stairs at Stone Mountain State Park come to mind).

Dirt Work brings to the forefront the lives of the traildogs – the folks who maintain, build, and occasionally reroute hiking trails.  It is long, arduous work, and the descriptions of a typical workday would make the average one of us ache just thinking about it.

The author began her tenure in trail work after college, when she signed on for a seasonal job in Glacier National Park in Montana.  The team she worked with often hiked miles into the woods for a shift, handling dangerous tools, learning lots of serious lessons, and developing a camaraderie along the way.  The author also met her future husband at Glacier and worked with him there on numerous occasions.

After years in Montana, Byl and her husband moved up to Alaska, first pulling a stint in the Chugach National Forest, and then to the interior, working in Denali National Park.  Alaska proved to be completely different – at Chugach, they boated more often than hiked to work spots, and the weather, especially along the coast, was a change – rain, and more rain.  Denali was another experience – Montana was more forest, Denali a tundra environment.  There were weather and seasonal issues – days of below zero temperature, time stretches of all light or all darkness, etc.

Apparently, Alaska was enough of a draw for them to stay there, although when you get towards the book’s end, you’ll find out that their work takes them away from the national park system.

Dirt Work is a fine poetical observation of the rough and grisly aspects of trail building.  I have a changed and better respect for the traildogs, the unsung heroes of hiking paths.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed

This #1 New York Times bestseller will soon be a major motion picture starringwild Reese Witherspoon.

When Cheryl Strayed was a college senior, her 45-year-old mother died of cancer, leaving Cheryl devastated by grief.  Not long after her mother’s death, Cheryl’s marriage fell apart.

She decided to go – all alone – to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, soon finding herself very poorly prepared for such a feat.  Her backpack, which she nicknamed “Monster,” was so heavy that, when she first put it on her back, she could barely stand up.  How could she possibly carry it for more than a thousand miles?  Her shoes, which had seemed so comfortable in the store, were terribly painful under trail conditions.  She encountered bears and rattlesnakes, freezing temperatures and blazing heat.  Although most people on the trail were wonderfully kind and helpful, she found that a woman alone in the wilderness sometimes encounters dangerous men.  Short of money, longing for a shower or a good meal, she kept pressing on.  In time, without fully realizing how, the long walk helped her to recover from her grief.

Strayed speaks frankly about her thoughts, faults, and weaknesses, and she knows how to involve readers in her joys and struggles.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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