Dead End in Norvelt – 2012 Newbery Award Winner

Looks like it’s going to be a long 1962 summer after Jackie is grounded for shooting his father’s World War II rifle at the drive-in movie screen (he didn’t know it was loaded). His only reprieve is helping elderly Miss Volker write obituaries for this small Pennsylvania town newspaper, and helping his father dig a bomb shelter and a runway in the corn field behind their house.  Jack Gantos mixes history with humor in his award-winning young adult book – Dead End in Norvelt.

As each elder citizen dies, Miss Volker, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, records their unique contribution to the town as well as adding a few kernels of historic significance to the obituaries, citing significant happenings all over the world occurring on the same day.  Gantos delivers the laughs along with a history lesson.

The action shifts when a group of Hells Angels burns down a house in the town and the town’s little old ladies start dying daily. The town undertaker buys the land of his dead customers, and pay Jackie’s father to tow the houses to a town in West Virginia.  Suddenly, a murder plot is suspected and an autopsy confirms that mushrooms, casseroles, chocolates, or Girl Scout cookies are all the possible murder weapons.

Gantos cannot resist one last laugh with a morality lesson in the end, but leaves with a nostalgic nod to history and the ever-changing times.

Pilgrimage – Annie Leibovitz

The first time I saw an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photography in Washington, D.C., I felt I knew her subjects intimately.  Leibovitz’s art captures her famous targets as posed but vulnerable.  When I found her book with Susan Sontag – Women – the images amazed me for their familiarity and honesty.

Her new book – Pilgrimage – reviewed by Dominique Browning for the New York Times in her article A Pilgrim’s Progress, comes out today – with no people in it.   The book opens with shots of Emily Dickinson’s house “that Ms. Leibovitz took, casually…on a family visit.”  Even on her off days, Leibovitz takes amazing pictures.

“She took her camera to Virginia Woolf’s house, photographing the surface of her writing table, and into the garden, capturing the wide, rolling water of the River Ouse, in which Woolf drowned herself.  She photographed Dr. Freud’s sumptuously carpeted patient’s couch in London, and Darwin’s odd specimen collection.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom with its simple white coverlets, in her cozy cottage, Val-Kill, stands in contrast to a silver serving dish, its rich patina rippling with light.  Abraham Lincoln’s elegant top hat and white kid gloves…Louisa May Alcott’s house…the view from Emerson’s bedroom window…”

More than another coffee table book, Leibovitz offers…”something about integrity, staying true to a vision…”

Her ad for Sears with the Kardashian sisters – not so much…but photographers have to pay their bills too.

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride

Today is Amelia Earhart’s birthday; she would have been 104, or maybe still is somewhere on a tropical island.  Amelia’s plane went down on July 2, 1937 en route from New Guinea -never to be found.  In looking for other books illustrated by Brian Selznick (author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret), I found Pam Munoz Ryan’s children’s story about Earhart’s famous friendship with First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt – Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride.

Ryan stays close to the historical facts: the two women were friends, the famous aviator did offer to be Eleanor’s flight instructor – Eleanor went as far as getting her student pilot license – and the famous night flight over Washington, D.C. in the story really happened.

Aside from the biographical information of the two women, Ryan offers children a look into the wonder of flying a small plane, and the magic of night flying in one.  Anyone who has experienced the majesty of flying into National Airport at night, amid the lights of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome, will appreciate Ryan’s description. But it was the wonder of flying in a small plane at night that brought back good memories to me.

Related Post:  Review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Franklin and Eleanor’s Marriage

No none ever knows the inside story of a marriage, but Hazel Rowley does her best to understand the Roosevelt’s “extraordinary marriage” in her biography of  Franklin and Eleanor – the last book she wrote before her recent death at 59 years old.  Actually, I went straight to the eight pages of pictures in the middle; who knew FDR was so handsome in his younger day, and how well the false PR worked to convince everyone he was “swimming himself back to health.”

Eleanor and Franklin traveled in the elite circle of old New York, with a President in the family (Teddy Roosevelt was Eleanor’s uncle and gave her away at her wedding).  Their beginnings as a couple seemed romantic, except for Eleanor’s ubiquitous mother-in-law.  Rowley recounts the days of Tammany Hall when FDR first entered politics, and she clearly describes everyday life in the early nineteenth century – it’s easy to forget how hard daily life was back then, even for the wealthy.

And then, of course, there was Lucy Mercer – private secretary to Eleanor; private lover to Franklin…

“She was…a tall, slim beauty with the manners and poise of the blue-blooded…but she was Catholic, penniless, and her parents had created more than a whiff of scandal.  Where was she going to find a suitable husband?”

With a weak constitution, FDR was always getting sick – typhoid fever, the Spanish flu and finally, polio.   Rowley’s details of his first two years with the disease show the amazing spirit of a man who could not be put down.  Throughout, of course, he had the help of Eleanor, faithful servants and nurses, Missy LeHand, and Louis Howe, who eventually became the “Assistant President.”

Much has been written about how today’s world of sound-bites and fast information would never have allowed the façade that surrounded FDR’s life and real physical abilities, but he was careful not to outright lie about his condition.  With Louis Howe, FDR mastered the skill of perception; the public saw what they wanted them to see – through campaigns for Governor of New York and President of the United States.  It’s doubtful today’s press would be so willingly misdirected.

Rowley clearly outlines the Roosevelt’s political lives; both influencing public opinion – he with the Fireside Chats, she with the Gridiron Widows, and later, “FDR was the politician, and she was the agitator.”  At times, Rowley disagrees with other biographers and even with Eleanor’s own accounting.  Rowley contends, perhaps rightly, that Eleanor knew how to spin a story, years before Jackie Kennedy created Camelot.

“Eleanor’s autobiography was in every way a political document.  There was no way she could have told the truth about certain things…Her narrative might have come across as beguilingly honest, but it is full of omissions and factual errors…”

But it’s their personal lives that resonate.  No one really knows the anguish Eleanor may have felt at his need for other women, his deference to his mother, or the terror and pain Franklin endured.  Both partners, though supportive of each other, seemed to realize that one person could not be everything for the other – even in marriage.  Yet, it was this unusual partnership of Eleanor and Franklin that made both lives fearless, and care “so little about what {others} say.” Rowley includes a favorite quote, meant to address international affairs and the turmoil of the government FDR inherited from Hoover, but it could just as well be applied to their personal lives:

“…the policy of a good neighbor – who resolutely respects himself and…respects the rights of others….”

Although Rowley’s narrative sometimes seems like a staccato peppering of facts, this is a book you will want to read carefully and slowly, savoring her attention to detail. Rowley carefully references her facts throughout the biography (42 pages of notes and indexed material), but writes as though she were having a conversation about old friends.  The promised salacious gossip is there too – FDR as a philanderer (even after stricken with polio) and Eleanor with a woman lover – some true, some discounted – all fun to read about.

What struck me most were all those individuals who “sacrificed their personal lives” to befriend and support this extraordinary couple.

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage – Hazel Rowley

When I read of the recent untimely death of biographer Hazel Rowley at age 59, I looked for her most recent book – Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.

I am next on the list at the library and look forward to reading about (from the NY Times)…

…”a long, vital and somewhat unorthodox partnership.  Here, too, there were longstanding indications of affairs by both partners, including his with Mrs. Roosevelt’s former social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and hers with the political journalist, Lorena Hickok…”

– Historical information and salacious tidbits…

Another Rowley biography that sounds tempting to read: Tête à tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre – also on my list.