Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Cups of Tea Allegations

Recently it's come to the forefront that Greg Mortenson and his organization, Central Asia Institute, which has built schools for girls throughout Afghanistan, may be stretching the truth. I thought Mortenson's two books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools were fascinating, and Three Cups of Tea made my own top 10 for 2009. In fact, I was so moved by that book I felt called to take some action, but never ended up writing that check and sending it to the Central Asia Institute headquartered in Montana. It's a good thing I didn't, because Mortenson, whether guilty or innocent, sure is acting squirrely. 60 Minutes recently featured a segment on the investigations into the schools Mortenson has supposedly built, as well as the accounting practices of his organization. My guess is that if he had nothing to hide and if he knew that he and his Institute were 100% in the clear, he would have accepted 60 Minutes' invitation to appear and clear his own name. Instead, he refused to be interviewed with the program, and at the end of their segment, when he was approached, he looks like a deer in the headlights. Isn't it disappointing to think that someone who professes to do so much good may not have done all the good he says he has?

New Novel: Grayton Beach Affair by James Harvey

I recently read Atlanta area author James Harvey's debut novel, Grayton Beach Affair, for a local magazine (that post is here). I've just heard from Harvey that he has a book signing this Saturday, April 29 at Peerless Book Store from 1-3 pm. Peerless is new at it's in Rivermont Station shopping center at 8465 Holcomb Bridge Rd, exit 7 on the east side of GA-400. Go check it out!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

World War II Reading

I’m on a bit of a World War II kick at the moment. I’ve got more reading up to do on the subject, but after having just finished two related books last week, I think I can rest for a moment and type out what I’m thinking. I’ve long since been fascinated by this time in our history, and I think it’s mostly thanks to reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time at age 11 and being the same age as the writer, and also because my four grandparents were young adults during the War, and I know all sorts of snippets from them about what life was like for them then.

My grandmothers were both in college during the war. One grandfather was in Officer Training School stateside and the War ended before he finished and was deployed. There are a bunch of pictures of the other grandfather walking around the French countryside in the snow with either a cigarette in his hand or what was likely a M1 Garand rifle, the standard issued weapon for most Army infantrymen during WWII. The first three grandparents talked about life during the War, and the other one, the one who saw all the action, never did. I have no idea what he experienced and he’s not here anymore to tell me if I asked.

My interest in the War hasn’t changed over the years, and it was something I paid close attention to when in London. I picked up several books on the subject, and I have already talked about three of them here, here and here.

Last week I read Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys by Brian Lavery and listened to The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. To be quite honest, the first was a bit of a bore for me. The book outlined all the logistics involved in transporting Churchill from place to place during the War on the down-low. It just wasn’t the right book for me when what I wanted to know was how he operated during the War, but when in London. I had hoped to see more mention and detail on Olive Christopher, one of Churchill’s secretaries who did some traveling with his entourage. She was only briefly mentioned in a few places, getting no more than a paragraph each time. I really liked the book I read about her at the end of 2010, and hoped I’d get a hefty portion of third person interpretation on Christopher, and that would be an interesting perspective to supplement what I already know about her. A well-research book though. I did learn a few things.

On the other hand, I thought The Postmistress was possibly the best book I’ve read so far in 2011 (it will probably make the top 10 list for the year). In it was an American broadcaster in London, the Blitz, life on the American home front and plenty of dramatic irony to keep me happy. There was so much going on and end the end, characters start coming together in a way that really wowed me. This was truly an excellent book. Read it if you haven’t. You won’t be sorry.

So what I have so far: accounts Churchill’s travels, of a London child sent to the country during the Blitz, of the Blitz from an American adult perspective, a German soldier dropped off on the American Gulf Coast to carry out a top-secret mission and of a civilian secretary working closely with Churchill. More reading is to come. On the horizon I have a fictional account of London children in the country, The Guernsey Potato Peel and Literary Society, two more biographies on Churchill and the story of a German civilian in Berlin in 1940.

More to come.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Animal Dreams and Erin Brockovich

I'd been wanting to read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for a couple of years before I finally did recently. And I've known I should read some of her other stuff too, as I've been told she's a fantastic writer and storyteller. I think the first time I knew of her was when Oprah chose her book The Poisonwood Bible for her book club in 2000. During my book club's December meeting we exchanged used books Dirty Santa-style and I ended up with Kingsolver's Animal Dreams and I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.

I really enjoyed it. It turned out to be one of my favorite kinds of stories, the kind when a female character, in need of a life change, takes a chance and good things come about. While all that was going on, the main character, Codi Noline, who graduated from medical school but never became a doctor, discovered while wading around in a creek with her high school biology students, that the living microorganisms that should have been flourishing there aren't. She sounds the alarm and gets the women from the local Stitch and Bitch Club riled up and they all start doing something about it.

It reminded me so much (in a good way) of the movie Erin Brockovich that I ordered it off Netflix and watched it the other night. The same kind of thing is going on. A mom, desperate for a job, begs for one at a small law firm, and is both pushy and likable enough that she both convinces her boss to keep her and convinces the residents of Hinkley, California, to trust her to help hold the nearby corporation that was ruining the environment and their health. She even earns the respect she deserves from this evil corporation, its attorneys and anyone else who doubted her from the get-go.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Donna Leon

I recently finished reading my third Donna Leon mystery, Death and Judgment, and have two more sitting on my bookshelf to read. Although I'm typically not much of a mystery reader, I am thoroughly enjoying Leon's descriptions of one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, Venice, and her main character, Commissario Guido Brunetti. I still have a long way to go, as Leon has just released her 20th book in the series, Drawing Conclusions. To coincide with this publication, USA Today ran a Q&A with Leon this week, which you can read here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Eudora Welty Exhibit

Last week I went to the Atlanta History Center to check out the Eudora Welty exhibit that's moving on May 8. Eudora Welty: Exposures and Reflections was a room full of her beautiful, telling photography taken all across Mississippi during the Great Depression while Welty was employed by the Works Progress Administration. I remembered many of the photographs from seeing them during a memoir class in graduate school when I read Welty's wonderful One Writer's Beginnings. The timing of this exhibit was great for me since only a month ago or so I was touring her Jackson, Mississippi, home and driving all over her hometown. It's a great exhibit and I'm glad I got the chance to see it. If you're in the Atlanta area and can make it before it moves on in three weeks, go.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


I love old typewriters. One of my earliest memories is of my dad hunched over the typewriter in the room that would later be my younger sister's, typing out purchase orders and business letters (to this day he still uses the hunt-and-peck typing method). The typewriter had been my mom's in college, and we also had my grandfather's college typewriter around the house. Both were manual, of course, and you had to mash the keys down pretty hard to get the letters to appear at the right darkness to be legible and consistent.

Also when I was little, my grandmother had in her home office an electric typewriter, which I thought was one of the best toys ever. After pounding the keys of the two manual typewriters at my house, I found the keys of her typewriter to be almost too sensitive. (It was the color of Grey Poupon and was still in the same spot when she died two years ago.) I made lots of mistakes, and I don't remember her machine having correction tape.

I think I was in the sixth grade when I asked for a typewriter for either Christmas or my birthday. It, too, was electric (fancy!) and I could backspace and white out over mistakes I'd made, retyping right over it as if I'd never made a mistake! A few years later my family broke down and bought a word processor, the step between a typewriter and a computer, and finally, my parents bought their first computer after I had gone to college.

Now that I'm on my laptop the better part of most days writing, researching, editing what someone else has written and a host of other work- and fun-related things, I can't even imagine what it would take for me to write something just straight out. The way I write things is usually not start to finish. I can't even think of what it would be like for me if I had to retype a page each time I thought to insert a new paragraph somewhere in the middle. But I guess I would if I had to.

So with all that said, I just loved a series of photos I found via Twitter (be sure to follow me @betsyrhame) yesterday of writers with their typewriters (also note how many of these authors have a burning cigarette in their hands. I love that too. Not something you see too much anymore). Check it out.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Class Reunions

Two books I've just finished, coincidentally, both have to do with reunions. I listened to The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg and read The Group by Mary McCarthy. Berg's novel was written from the perspective of several modern-day characters, all convening at their 40th high school reunion. By the time each alumnus arrives at the event, I knew all about each character's background and their various regrets and heartbreaks (there were many).

The Group is structured much the same way, except we meet the seven 1933 Vassar College graduates first at one character's wedding following graduation. Then the rest of the book, until almost the end, tells about each woman's life over the next seven years (most characters interact with at least another friend of two throughout). Then at the end of the book the characters all come back together to attend the funeral of the classmate who married at the beginning. Much like with Berg's characters, McCarthy's women face a variety of issues: marital disharmony, mental illness, aging parents, declining physical health, modern motherhood and careers. I enjoyed both of these books very much, even though they were both, overall, very sad.

I think these books both gave me pause mostly because I've only had two reunions so far (one high school and one college), and another is on the horizon this spring, and I've yet to experience the death of a close classmate (thank goodness). Both the reunions I've attended so far have been overwhelmingly positive and fun, but then, so were my high school and college years. I hope each time I go to a reunion it's the same way. I'm holding out high hopes for my 10th college reunion coming up next month. I had so much fun with my classmates at our five year gathering that it ranks right up there with the best weekends I've ever had, the only better one being when I got married. Here's hoping that my 2001 college classmates are just as great, if not better, than we were when we graduated.