I can’t be accused of being a hoarder. I gave away my children’s toys and donate clothes I no longer wear. One guest in my home asked “Where are the books?” My answer “I keep my books stored at the library.” I choose not to keep items, for which I might find a use, at some unknown future time. I recently read E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley , based loosely on the Collyer brothers of New York City and their compulsive hoarding disorder. It affirmed my choice of lifestyle.
Compulsive hoarding isn’t a new phenomenon. Recently the problem has been highlighted by television talk and reality shows bringing therapists and/or professional organizers to the aid (in the interest of ratings) of compulsive hoarders. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Homer and Langley Collyer were “media” stars. The New York Times Historical database has numerous articles about the brothers and their problems. Doctorow not only chronicles events but offers a sympathetic look into the minds and lives of those impaired. Homer, acting as narrator, begins the tale with his descent into blindness “I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade out.” He relates his growing dependence on Langley; a World War I veteran, and a casualty, both physically and emotionally, of his battlefield experience.
Doctorow set his novel over a larger time span, World War I through the early 1970’s. The Collyers are observers and participants of the era. The brothers collect an assortment of people: gangsters, missionaries, hippies (who come and go); and items: Model T Fords, player pianos, television sets (that never leave); and thus relate the accounting of the years in likeness to the daily newspapers Langley amasses. These newspapers symbolize the repetition of events (as Langley espoused) and the similarity throughout time of the human condition.
This isn’t the first book based on the Collyer brothers. In 1954 Marcia Davenport wrote My Brother’s Keeper another fictional depiction and in 2003 Franz Lidz penned the non-fiction Ghosty Men: the Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders: an Urban Historical.
Award winning author Doctorow’s other acclaimed novels include Ragtime, which won the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976; World’s Fair , winner of the 1986 National Book Award; Billy Bathgate, 1990 winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The March, which received the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award, the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
One of my book discussion groups read Homer and Langley and it offered an excellent discussion. The library offers a book discussion kit.
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“No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.” -Hebrew Proverb
In the darkest of times, both for the individual and society, it is essential to maintain hope, for it is through hope that one can endure and overcome the worst of circumstances. In 2005, Mary Doria Russell penned a captivating novel entitled A Thread of Grace, which is set in Italy during World War II, specifically under Nazi occupation, and involves a cast of characters who, while incredibly different from one another and in vastly different positions, find themselves in situations that constantly test the limits of their humanity, and through it all, hope serves as a primary driving force, preventing the characters from simply folding.
With the coast of northeastern Italy as the backdrop to the action of the story, the reader enters a region where Italian Catholics and Italian Jews mingle and together resist the occupying Nazis in a variety of ways. With all sides responsible for killing and violence, the line between right and wrong begins to blur, and serious questions arise. Are there circumstances in which killing is excusable and the correct course of action? Does the end justify the means? Is it possible, or even right, to remain neutral in wartime, whatever the reasons? When is someone beyond redemption, if that is even possible?
Through the progression of the novel, Ms. Russell introduces an ever increasing number of characters forming a multi-faceted plot that engages the reader without overwhelming him or her, while skillfully recreating that time period. Through the conversations between characters and the internal dialogue that the omniscient narration exposes, one is given a tumultuous ride on a roller coaster of emotions, relying on that ever-important human quality for the courage to see the story through to the end: hope.
Ms. Russell is also the author of four other novels:
The Sparrow (1996)
Children of God, sequel to The Sparrow (1998)
Dreamers of the Day (2008)
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More and more Louisville children are lucky enough to have experiences with gardening and animal husbandry thanks to an increase in community gardens and local farms opening their gates. Urban gardening is growing in popularity, so why not check out a few books on the subject?
Even if the only place they’ve ever seen an egg is in a carton, your kids will get a kick out of "finding the egg" within the vivid photographs that illustrate this charming picture. It all takes place in the author’s own backyard and stars her own flock of smartly named chickens.
Tillie Lays An Egg by Terry Golson
Don’t have a yard of your own but want to introduce your kids to gardening? Perhaps there is a community garden plot in your neighborhood. Let this story inspire your children to want to grow their own food while building community. It might just make them want to eat their vegetables.
Our Community Garden by Barbara Pollack
Interested in decorative gardening or beautification? Get inspired by this picture book based on a true story of urban renewal.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
Maybe you’re more of a dreamer? You get excited with the endless possibilities that a seed catalog presents. If that’s the case, you might enjoy this spectacularly titled book of gardening inspired poems that flow from late winter into the planting season, through summer, and back to the first snow.
I Heard It from Alice Zucchini: Poems About the Garden by Jaunita Havill
Interested in knowing more about local foods and community gardening? Then check out these links.
Brightside Community Gardens Page
Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service Community Gardens Page
Food Literacy Project
Breaking New Grounds
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Often called the Philosopher-Poet of the ecological movement, Derrick Jensen has produced fiction, non-fiction, spoken word, and even a graphic novel and a children’s book. When introduced to Jensen, finding a place to start can be intimidating. He covers an amazingly broad spectrum of subjects, and treats them all with intensity and passion. His two-volume manifesto Endgame is 960 pages alone. But even more daunting than the volume of his work is the subject matter. Jensen forces the reader to deal with problems that most people would rather ignore. As captivating as his work is, you can’t help but have a sinking feeling in your stomach as you read it. I often feel like a selfish child who’s been caught doing something wrong, and now has to face both my conscience and the consequences of my actions when Jensen confronts me. His beliefs, such as his argument for the destruction of modern civilization to save the world, are admittedly extremist in nature. But Jensen’s ideas that recycling cans and using better light bulbs are little more than the “green-washing” of a corrupt and collapsing culture hold more water than I’d like to believe.
How Shall I Live My Life is manageable in both size and intensity. The book is a collection of short interviews conducted by Jensen. While it lacks his impassioned, creative writing style, it is a good introduction to the subjects that he typically writes about. I’m not certain if it was his motive for compiling these interviews, but they do present a less heartbreaking introduction to the subjects. Sometimes when reading a Jensen book, I get the feeling that it’s “me and Jensen against the world.” When read as a collection of works from 10 different people, the situations don’t feel as hopeless. I found the interview with Jan Lundberg about the end of car culture to be the most compelling and interesting. The relatively short entry is still able to deal with the problems caused by car-dependency in a depth that I’ve found all together absent elsewhere. It made me feel like I’m not alone in banging my head against the wall trying to rid myself of my car. But each of the articles, on everything from human interaction in the modern world to corporate accountability for political instability, were all quite convincing in regards to what the book calls the “destructive, dominant culture.”
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Edward Eager (1911-1964) really ought to be better known. Although none of his books won major awards, they have stayed in print for more than fifty years and are still being read and enjoyed by elementary age children.
Mr. Eager was actually a successful playwright and lyricist. He wrote fewer than a dozen books for children, seven of them representative of what he termed his “daily magic” style. While reading aloud to his young son, Fritz, he discovered the books of the classic children’s author, Edith Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Magic City, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, and The Enchanted Castle, among others), and, admiring her style, consciously tried to imitate it.
His first “magical” sort of book was Half Magic, published in 1954. In this, as in the six to follow, he always paid homage to Nesbit by depicting his characters reading her books. Of her, he said, “Probably the sincerest compliment I could pay her is already paid in the fact that my own books for children could not even have existed if it were not for her influence”.
Okay, so what is so great about Eager’s books? Why should you read them aloud to your kids, or place them in your children’s hands? Although the world of his characters is that of his own childhood (1920s Toledo, Ohio), and there are certainly differences in lifestyle from our own time, there is also a timeless quality of childhood, a sense that magic can really happen to ordinary kids. As a character in another of his books, Seven-Day Magic, says, “The best kind of magic book …is when it’s about ordinary people like us, and then something happens and it’s magic. The best kind of magic book…is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted”. The books exhibit a lot of humor and word play. The children in his books are reading children, and are often depicted visiting the library. There are many references to other authors and books running through his plots. The episodic chapters make the books perfect for reading aloud.
The characters introduced in that book reappear in Magic by the Lake, Knight’s Castle, and The Time Garden. Next, try the companion books, Magic of Not? and The Well-Wishers. Finally, you may want to read his last work, a stand- alone book, Seven-Day Magic, which is about a magical library book.
Half Magic appears on a number of lists of favorite or recommended books for children. Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, lists it as one of his favorite kids’ books. Terry Clark, head of the Children’s Library of the Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia, included it on her list, “If You Like Harry Potter, You Will Like These”. Finally, the modern children’s writer, Laurel Snyder, has continued the tradition of using imitation as the sincerest form of flattery by writing a book, Any Which Wall , which sets out to imitate Eager in just the way he imitated Nesbit. As researcher Charlotte Spivack put it, “…the best “daily magic” available to children is the magic experience of reading imaginative literature”.
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