Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut!

Every year I search for a link to this quote from Breakfast of Champions to commemorate November 11th, which is my mom's and Kurt Vonnegut's birthday.  I want to thank them both for their service to humanity. Then it came to me--duh--I have my own blog that has somehow lain dormant for almost a year. I have probably written more this year than usual, but have somehow failed to repost my reviews or anything else here. So now, I have a very "braver self worthy" day to commemorate. And I choose to do so with this quote:

"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not."

God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Many Storied House

In Many-Storied House, George Ella Lyon's latest poetry collection from University Press of Kentucky, the poet uses her own "floor plan" prompt as the organizing device for this volume of inviting poems. The effect is magical. Poet, Naomi Shihab Nye agrees, as she offers this praise for the back cover, "George Ella Lyon writes the most transporting, intuitive, inviting poems, their doors feel wide open." And North Carolina's Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti offers his tribute to Lyon's craft with this comment, "Each room, each curio, each haunted nail and joist is cataloged, named and invested with chiseled language."

George Ella Lyon, is an award-winning author of books for readers of all ages. I first became acquainted with her work when I taught high school English and my friend Lee Howard came to do a writing residency with my sophomores. She shared with me a prompt from George Ella that began with "I am from…"  For the first time, my students were able to produce stories about themselves rich in personal memories of place. In subsequent writing workshops, I ran into other prompts generated by George Ella until I was finally lucky enough to attend a workshop at Grailville taught by the poet herself.

In that workshop, the participants all drew floor plans of a childhood home, labeling the rooms and listing memories of important events that occurred in each room. From one of these diagrams and a later songwriting prompt, I was eventually able to write a song about a family story my Grandma Babe told me about her father. The diagram enabled me to fill the story with sensory details from Grandma's house, including a stern portrait of my grandpa and the praying hands of Jesus, a print my Grandma had encased in a lighted frame over her bed, The portrait and the print became witnesses to Grandma's story.

George Ella Lyon uses the floor plans of Many-Storied House to move the reader through the space by story, metaphorical and actual. We begin our journey at the entry of the first floor, and work our way through the various rooms, basement and garage before confronting a new story entitled "Flood."  From "Flood," the reader moves to "Upstairs,"  to "Yard," and finally to "All of It,"  a section that seems to challenge the poet to stand apart from the house, to take it in as a whole. I really enjoyed meeting the inhabitants of this house through their many stories, out of timeline.  By arranging the poems in the way that memory works--jumping our way through related synapses, following the firing neurons --Lyon brings us into her world. We feel these people and their stories rather than perceive them.

In a poem called "Smithereens,"  Lyon shares her first inkling about the power of the atom to destroy.  The poem is part of the "Upstairs" section, where revelations about life and her family seem to appear to the poet. While watching the president on TV in the library, Lyon recalls a science lesson:

On the dusty blackboard last year
Mr. Smith looped the invisible 
solar system of the atom. "The
energy that holds everything together
can be reversed." he said. "And blow it all

Near the end of the poem, the 8th grader posits her understanding of the way things work:

…This is what 
the world is.  Great forces must stick to
their orbits or unleash the rush that will
blow us all to smithereens.

In another revelation on the upstairs level, a young girl tries to tell her mother that something bad happened to her at the neighbor's house. Her mother continues to sort laundry and responds.

You know that's not true
she says.
These are our neighbors
These are our friends
Nothing happened

The next few poems on that story follow the neural trace of fear for that young girl. Fear of the linen closet, fear of going to the neighbor's again, and fear of the kind of "doll mother" the young girl has become.  Then, the shame of not knowing about menstruation and where that synapse takes her: to her brother's room and the smells of boys and the ways it is off limits.

Because my own memories jump leap frog fashion across lily pads of category, I find Lyon's organization of her amazing collection of poems accessible and completely without judgment. The family in the many-storied house is revealed to us with all its faults.  Human, exposed and loved outright.

In one poem, she wonders how her mother can keep the criticizing image of the poet's grandma so near to her through her life.

Why she faces 
that face
every morning
I cannot comprehend
unless it's to say
Even you
could not
stop me

In a poem entitled "With a Song in His Heart," Lyon pays tribute to her departed father with their shared love of music.  I can barely read this poem without crying, but the final lines say it all:

"O Daddy, I am leaning
on those everlasting arms."

Many-Storied House is a master work from George Ella Lyon.  She wields her own teaching tool of the floor plan with the craft of an architect.

***This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati in October, 2013.  You can listen to it here.

Kentucky Hauntings

While the interest in ghost stories seems to spike around Halloween, story telling couple, Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown claim that they heard many of their family stories while huddled around the hearth during the winter. Their just released collection from University Press of Kentucky entitled Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History is somewhat scholarly in that it gives more than a nod to the sources of each story. The Browns categorize their collection into three types of tales:  those learned from history, those learned from headlines, and those heard through homefolks.

I was able to read the entire collection in one afternoon, but know that I will go back and reread some of the ones that I found most fascinating. Where was this book when my niece and nephew demanded scary stories around the campfire and all I had in my arsenal was a re-telling of  Poe short stories?  Many of the stories in this collection will delight those who crave a good scare.

In the history section, "A Chivaree Gone Bad"  explains an old country custom while terrifying the reader with its unexpected outcome.  Another story based on history and custom is "Telling the Bees," which owes much of its structure to an old custom of telling the bees if their keeper dies so that the bees will not abandon their hive. I enjoyed learning about the old customs almost as much as I chilled from the eerie details of these stories.  Other interesting customs no longer practiced in rural life like turkey drives, the burning of tobacco beds, whittling, and the initiation of a new hunter involving a creature called a Swamp Booger provide the basis for some of the more frightening plots.

In the headlines section, the Browns explore stories from the newspapers.  One I had heard before while visiting Mammoth Cave investigates the ghost of Floyd Collins, an explorer who was trapped in the cave and died in 1925.  I had also heard about the Lover's Leap at Cumberland Falls, but had no idea that there was an actual accident at the park that resulted in that popular reference for one of the cliffs. An amusing story about the ghost who haunts the Paramount Art Center, a tale of a politician who did not want a grave stone, and the eerie goings-on at Waverly Hills Sanatorium are also entertaining and noteworthy.

I found myself most interested in the section entitled "Stories from Homefolks."  In these tellings, the authors seem to find their most authentic voices since the tales  were passed on to them personally.  In fact, I read a couple of them aloud to my husband--mainly because he'd followed me down to my reading spot next to the lake and I thought it only polite to share.  There is a story about a bathtub ghost who saves a man's life, a story about how killing a forbidden bird, the dove, makes a permanent circle in the ground that snow cannot cover, a tale about a shadow boy helping a young girl find her way home in a storm, a heartwarming yarn about a devoted neighbor who completes his mission to bring medicine to those in need, even though he's dead.  But my favorite from this section, "The Red Thing"  has some elements of the tall tale to it that my husband and I discussed and laughed about afterwards.  Was great-great uncle Lightel Simpson pulling some legs, or did some horrible creature really come to his cabin one night to devour his newly shot deer and frighten his hounds?

I'll leave that for future readers to decide.  Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown are part of the Corn Island Storytelling Festival Community, so it makes perfect sense that the last story in their book recounts the final days of their dear friend, Joy Pennington, and her grace at facing the ravages of cancer. According to the Browns, "storytelling brings us together as a culture. We are close to our families and our neighbors when we sit together, tell stories, and then discuss our feelings about them."  I enjoyed reading Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History, both by myself at the edge of the lake and with my husband when we shared our theories about "The Red Thing." In fact, I think I finally quit looking over my shoulder at that point.

***This review originally aired on WVXU 91.7 during October.  You can listen to the review here.

Kentucky's Frontier Highway

While reading Kentucky's Frontier HIghway: Historical Landscapes Along the Maysville Road by geographer, Karl Raitz and anthropologist, Nancy O' Malley, I was confronted by the nemesis of every avid reader, an unknown word skulking in the shadows of my consciousness.  You know what kind of word I'm talking about.  I passed it by many times before without looking it up because the context in which I first encountered the word "palimpsest" allowed me to continue reading without losing any comprehension. Thus, I never really learned its meaning.

But not this time.  When  Raitz and O'Malley introduce the stretch of road examined in this November, 2012 publication from University Press of Kentucky, they characterize the road that stretches between Maysville and Lexington as both "a palimpsest and a puzzle."  After reading Part I--which explores modes of traveling the Maysville Road from pioneer times to the present and Part II--which delineates the evolution of the road from a trace to a modern highway-- I still hadn't figured out the meaning of "palimpsest" from context clues. For those of you who know the definition of this word, I apologize for my stubbornness. For when I finally looked up the definition of "palimpsest"-- after meeting it twice in the narrative--I had to agree from the accounts presented, that the Maysville Road--known in various time periods as Smith's Waggon Road, the Limestone Trace, The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike, and U.S. Highways 68, 62, and 27--is indeed a palimpsest, both literally and figuratively.

Part I of this book explains how modes of travel affected the road's physical aspects over time.  So literally, the road becomes an archeological site with many layers to be examined, one meaning of a palimpsest. Some 12,000 years ago, mega fauna shuffled wide paths from salt lick to salt lick, carving out the traces that pioneers would later follow after stepping off their flatboats from the Ohio River. Once they landed at Limestone(now called Maysville) and made the one-day journey up the steep incline to Old Washington, pioneer travelers would spend the night at an inn while their horses rested.  Then, early travelers often spent another eight days traveling the 64 miles to Lexington along treacherous terrain which required them to ford rivers. Once wagons and stagecoaches took to the roads, there was demand for better surfacing  while bridges and accommodations sprung up along the way.  Lexington and Washington became early population centers because the Limestone Trace was the major route to the rich bluegrass region for those seeking land, or those moving goods into these new population centers in the early 1800s.  Once steamboat travel became prevalent in the 1820s and 30s, river cities like Louisville and Cincinnati also gained economic prominence and increased population.  

Part II of this book examines the evolution of the road from trace to pioneer road to turnpike to parkway and finally to state and federal highway.  With each iteration, the road reveals another meaning of palimpsest, that of a parchment scraped away of its older writings to make way for new.  Part II discusses the social and economic complexities of rebuilding a road that will withstand the demands of each century.  Responsibility for building and maintaining roads in Kentucky lagged far behind engineering advances in Europe largely because of a shortsighted tendency to see roads as a local convenience and not as a state or national conduit for a growing economy.  There are interesting stories about Andrew Jackson's refusal to aid state governments in building roads and vignettes about how roads were engineered from broken stone, or macadam, named for the Scottish engineer, John McAdam. Plus, there are many first-hand accounts of travelers who used the road during each stage of its evolution.

For me, the most interesting part of Kentucky's Frontier Highway is Part III, which is a mile by mile cataloguing of the Maysville Road from Lexington to Maysville.  The cataloguing includes historic locations, photos of present day sites, neighborhood diagrams, and maps.  If someone wanted to take a Sunday driving tour of the Maysville Road, Raitz and O'Malley have provided an information-packed tour guide of this palimpsest.  You can get a sense of the road's history  by locating surviving landmarks along the mile markers and read about what was "written" on older layers of this metaphorical parchment.  There is even a chapter on the importance of the Maysville Road to the Underground Railroad.

Raitz and O'Malley close their discussion of the Maysville Road with a short section, Part IV, which takes a look at the relationship between roads and American culture in general.  This passage sums up why the study of old roads proves fascinating to the authors:

"…roads are windows into past aspirations, technologies, politics and economies. Transportation, in turn is the linchpin of America's economy and social life--freedom and ubiquity of movement lie at the very core of America's national culture."

Before this summer is over, I plan to take a ride down the Maysville road guided by my copy of Kentucky's Frontier Highway.  Don't worry. I'll plan this ride with a responsible Sunday driver, so I can ride shotgun and read about  the mile-by-mile points of interest.

***This review aired originally on WVXU's Around Cincinnati.  Listen to it here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z

New in March from University Press of Kentucky comes Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z , the second collaboration between children's literature educator Linda Hager Pack and master water colorist, Pat Banks.  While their first children's book, A is for Appalachia!  The Alphabet Book of Appalachian Heritage explored the culture of the mountains, this useful and appealing volume focuses on toys and games prevalent in the region during the mid to late 19th Century. While both books would be welcome resources for any library or museum program on Appalachian culture, Appalachian Toys and Games offers a hands-on component to any classroom exploration through detailed descriptions of how to actually play the various games and how to create simple toys.

Moving alphabetically, the book begins with the letter "A" for apple doll. Pack describes the process of preparing a Rome Beauty apple to become the craggy face of an apple doll, complete with directions on how to carve the face and preserve the apple. Banks illustrates a finished doll, it's wizened face framed in curls and juxtaposed against a backdrop of the juicy red Rome beauties from which it was sculpted..

The letter "C," stands for corn shuck doll. For this toy, Pack forgoes the how-to approach for a more historical perspective, highlighting instead the Native American origin of these dolls. She includes the Iroquois legend of the corn husk doll as an example of story related to the toy. Banks' illustration pictures a tiny doll clasped in someone's hands against a muted background of green and gold, suggesting the outdoor playground favored by Appalachian children during this time period.

There are many descriptions of group games included in the volume such as "D" is for drop the handkerchief, "F" is for fox and hound,  "G" is for game of graces, and "H" is for hoop and stick.  Each game includes rules for how to play along with a Banks watercolor illustrating the  activity in a beautiful, impressionistic outdoor setting.

While those of us born in the 20th Century might be familiar with some of the games and toys described like hopscotch, marbles, jump rope, pick up sticks, Red Rover, and Hide and Seek, some of the games and toys are not as well known to city dwellers or even to suburbanites. For example, "W" is for whammy diddle describes a hand-carved toy that will respond to the commands "gee" and "haw." Farm folk will recognize these commands for cattle, horses, and mules to turn right and left, respectively.

Three of my favorite sections of the book involve the letters, "E," "I," and "O." For most children, eerie stories hold a fascination. Recognizing the rich oral tradition of Appalachian storytelling, Pack includes a complete eerie tale in this collection entitled, "Never Mind Them Watermelons." Banks accompanies the eerie story with a colorful illustration depicting a story teller holding her young audience rapt while in the background, a full moon holds court over a woods filled with haints, boogers, and eyes that glow red in the hollow of a nearby tree.

Near and dear to my inner child's heart are the sections entitled "I" is for imagination and "O" is for outside. Who hasn't floated hickory nut shells down the creek as sailboats? Or created little villages in the tree roots where fairy princesses could sleep on beds of moss? Or cut little pieces from their mama's clothesline to make little people with long flowing hair?  Exactly. In these sections, Pack extols the childhood ability to turn moss, rocks, sticks, creeks, and flowers into playhouses, tables, forts, castles, seas, jewelry or any fantastic world of whimsy that might be conjured by a child's imagination in the natural world. 

Next to Banks' serene rendering of a barefoot young girl crossing a creek over smooth stones, Pack summarizes "O" is for outside with a list poem filled with images of outdoor play.  Here is a brief excerpt from page 23:

"Outside is where toes were dipped,
Rocks were skipped,
And laughing children dropped from ropes
at favorite water holes."

"Childhood has always beckoned me," says Linda Hager Pack in her author's note to Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z.  "I had no sooner stepped beyond its borders than it flirted with me to come back. 'Come play," it whispered."

In a skillful blend of how-to, history, story and verse, Pack beckons the reader to experience 19th Century playtime in Appalachia from A to Z.  It's a journey masterfully punctuated  by the illustrations of Pat Banks, who captures the visual essence of each toy and game, inviting us to play along.  Sharing this book with your favorite child, grandchild, niece, nephew, classroom teacher or librarian might just take you all on an imaginative journey outside where your inner child so longs to play.

(This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on May 12, 2013. Listen to the review at this link:  Listen!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Northern Kentucky Takes the Stage at the Market

Celebrating its 31st year in 2013, Kentucky Crafted: the Market has been named Number One Fair & Festival in the country four times by the readers of American Style Magazine.  The Southeast Tourism Society has named it a Top 20 Event for 15 years.  This year the Market offers the best in Kentucky traditional and contemporary art, music, film and food all under one roof at the Lexington Convention Center on March 2 and 3 in downtown Lexington, KY.

Of course, my favorite part of the Market is the music.  Not only will there be a Made to be Played Exhibit dedicated to the memory of master luthier, craftsman, instrument inventor and musician, Homer Ledford, but there will also be a stage showcasing performers from the Kentucky Arts Council's Performing Arts Directory.  This year Northern Kentucky is well-represented in that line-up.

At 10 am on Saturday March 2, you can hear the classical/jazz of Richard Goering. Goering delivers beautiful classical, funky finger style and passionate Latin guitar with equal mastery. His improvisations and arrangements of jazz standards and popular tunes engage and captivate. OK, but here's my testimony: I once saw Richard improvise accompaniment for a classical singer on one song and then turn around to play "Fly Me to the Moon" for a jazz ensemble on the next number. With no rehearsal.

If you stick around the Market until 3 pm on Saturday, you will hear Covington's own Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers who do gospel and a cappella like no one else. Begun as a jubilee-style a cappella, sacred gospel quartet, the Brotherhood Singers have expanded their repertoire to include patriotic, holiday and feel good R&B music. Lately, they have sung the National Anthem at major sporting events including Bengals games. I have always marveled at their ability to grab a starting pitch out of thin air.

On Sunday March 3rd at 11 am, you can catch your Northern Kentucky acts back-to-back. Kyle Meadows and Tisa McGraw perform Celtic, Appalachian, and pop tunes on hammered dulcimer and Celtic harp. Believe me, you have never heard "Stop, in the Name of Love" until you've heard Kyle perform it with those hammers. The blend of Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer makes for some breathtaking arrangements.

Up at noon is bluesman extraordinaire, Greg Schaber, who is--in my humble opinion--one of the best guitarists on the planet. He moves easily between blues styles including Mississippi bottleneck, the smoother Texas guitar style and even the rag-influenced Piedmont approach. He ties his jaw-dropping licks together with anecdotes and humor. He once patiently taught me to play a guitar lead for the Motels' "Only the Lonely" note for note.  That, my friends, is a feat in itself.

And besides all of these great Northern Kentucky acts, you can enjoy some straight up jazz, bluegrass, roots, singer songwriter, gypsy jazz, and world as performers like Mitch Barrett, the Reel World String Band, Carla Van Hoose and the Kentucky Travelers, Osland Daily Duo, Heath & Molly and No Tools Loaned grace the Kentucky Stage. One of the most delightful acts scheduled this year is Appalatin, a unique band blending Appalachian and Latin roots who are based in Louisville. You can link to the Kentucky Stage schedule and find all Market ticket information by going to the Kentucky Arts Council website.

This review originally aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on February 24, 2013. Listen to the review by clicking here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

One Hundred and One Famous Hymns

Recently, a good friend handed me what appeared to be a coffee table book that she'd discovered in one of her thrift store adventures. Since I am always happy to get my hands on research material involving music history or folk song, I was excited to begin browsing and finally reading The History of Hymn Singing as told through One Hundred and One Famous Hymns by Charles Johnson.  Published in 1983 by Readers Digest, this fascinating book contains the scores for 101 hymns arranged chronologically from Gregorian chant to early 20th Century gospel along with interesting background information about the hymn writers and composers. My friend pointed out to me that several of the lyricists and composers of these well-loved hymns had Cincinnati area connections.

Composer James Henry Fillmore, born in Cincinnati, wrote the music to which we sing "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth." When his ordained Christian minister father died, James took over his father's singing school to help support the family.  Later with his brothers, Fillmore founded Fillmore Brothers Music House, publishing their first Sunday School book, Songs of Glory in 1874. Fillmore Brothers publications became widely used in the Midwest, allowing James Henry Fillmore to compose many tunes for hymn writers like Jessie Pounds, who was also from Ohio.

The composer of "Take the Name of Jesus with You," William Howard Doane, was an inventor and industrialist who still found time to write twenty-two hundred hymn tunes and forty collections. Born in Preston,  Connecticut and educated at Woodstock Academy, Doane directed the school choir at age 14. After completing his education, he went to work for his father's cotton manufacturing business in Norwich, CT.  He soon became associated with J.A. Fay & Company, manufacturers of woodworking machinery, and in 1860 moved the firm to Cincinnati.

For more than 25 years, Doane served as Superintendent of the Mount Auburn Baptist Church Sunday School. As a dedicated Christian businessman, William Howard Doane takes his place along musician William Bradbury and the Reverend Robert Lowry in the development of Sunday School hymns. He often collaborated with gospel hymn writers like Fanny Crosby and Lydia Baxter.

While I was aware of Harriet Beecher Stowe's connections to Cincinnati through the Underground Railroad, I was surprised that the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin also wrote hymn lyrics. Stowe moved to Cincinnati when her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, became president of Lane Theological Seminary. Here, Harriet met and married a member of the faculty, Professor Calvin E. Stowe. Both she and her husband held strong views against slavery, and soon their Cincinnati home became one of the stations along the Underground Railroad. Her beautiful lyrics for the hymn "Still, Still with Thee" are set to a tune composed by Felix Mendelsshon. As was the custom for many 19th Century hymn writers, known tunes often became the vehicles for their words.

A final local connection is revealed in the hymn, "Bringing in the Sheaves." Knowles Shaw, who became widely know in his time as the "Singing Evangelist," wrote the words to this anthem of evangelism while composer George A. Minor(very music name) is credited with the tune. Born in Butler County, Shaw published "Bringing in the Sheaves" in The Morning Star collection in 1877.  It lives on as one of the most recognized American hymns.

The History of Hymn Singing as told through One Hundred and One Famous Hymns might keep me from googling background information on many of the hymns my trio sings, but more than likely it will cause me to dig even deeper into some of the earlier hymn writers.  For example, I was amused by the advice John Wesley provided in the preface to the Wesley brothers' hymnal, Sacred Melody. According to Wesley, anyone leading others in singing hymns should remember the following seven rules:

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any other.
2. Sing them exactly as printed here…if you have learned them otherwise, unlearn it.
3. Sing all. See that you join the congregation. 
4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were dead or half asleep.
5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the congregation.
6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure and keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind, but attend close to the leading voices. Take care not to sing too slow.
7. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself…to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing and see that your heart is not carried away by the sound, but offered to God.

Got that, all you hymn singers out there? Now open your books to 100, and for Heaven's sake, no bawling.

***This segment aired on Around Cincinnati on January 27, 2013.  Here's a link to listen at WVXU.org: