Forum Posts

Karen Stephens
Apr 11, 2022
In What Are You Reading
An Owl on Every Post” (1970, re-issued in 2012 by Muse Ink Press) is Ms. Sanora Babb’s memoir of growing up in the western plains in the early 1900’s pioneer time, just before WW I. Up to seven years old, our narrator happily grew up in tribal Oteo territory (now OKlahoma) and was especially close to their elder chief who named her “Little Cheyenne Who Rides Like the Wind.” But at seven, her impulsive, emotional, and risk-loving father moved her family of five to SE Colorado so he could homestead to “prove up” 325 acres with his father. They lived out their “nesting experience” in an underground one room “dug-out house,” enduring all kinds of weather hardships and near total social isolation. And all to raise the not-so marketable…. broomcorn. (I’m shaking my head, too.) Constantly on the edge of full out starvation, they never succeeded at living underground, much less at farming. But survive, they did, even despite living two miles from fresh water. Though “Little Cheyenne” never went to formal school until age eleven, her quirky and intelligent grandfather home-schooled her in their sunken room with nothing but a book about the adventures of Kit Carson and old newspaper stories pasted onto their dug-out’s mud walls (meant to control household dirt.) Though a lot of hardship took place, author Babb authentically described how the seemingly barren landscape and its bounty of wildlife took lasting root in Little Cheyenne. It’s my favorite part of her story, even with its foreshadowing of today’s environmental struggles. The strong bond between unconventional grandpa and insatiably curious granddaughter grabs at the imagination, too. Grandpa couldn’t grow broomcorn too well, but luckily for readers, he planted the love of reading and poetic writing in a granddaughter who would someday flourish. By the memoir’s end, we learn just how far out Little Cheyenne flew into the world. It’s amazing, interesting and inspiring. And, if you’re curious to know which newspaper mastheads appeared on the dug-out’s walls of introductory reading, well, you’ll just have to read the book. 😉 Lucky for us, there’s more out there from Sanora Babb. I’m looking forward to her novel “Whose Names Are Unknown.” There’s some juicy details about that book, written at the same time —and on the same topic—as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”Babb’s book was put on hold and not published until decades later. Short-sighted was her easily discouraged, possibly sexist publisher! It promises to be a great read, even Ken Burns says so.
I’ve found a new favored author!!  content media
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Karen Stephens
Mar 13, 2022
In What Are You Reading
“Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler. (G.P.Putnam’s Sons. 2022.) Generational family dynamics of the Booth family (yes, THAT Booth) are on full display. The home front dysfunction that contributed to John Wilkes Booth’s mania is not surprising. At times I felt like I was reading “stranger than fiction” facts from a national tabloid. In a preface, the author states she wanted to examine how a family coped when a member became a monster. She also explained that she deliberately didn’t want to make John Wilkes the central character, lest it give him more undeserved attention. Well, for me it didn’t work. I doubt most people would buy the book if the Booth family weren’t infamous for their 9th child’s assassination of Lincoln. But being the 9th child, John Wilkes comes very late in a book that shares some interesting family tidbits, but also a lot of mundane, tedious, irrelevant sibling details. The book needed an editor with a much stronger hand. Was it about how a family nurtured a someday assassin? Or about the fall out for a family coping once one of their own becomes a notorious assassin? Most of the book focused on Booth’s father and to a far lesser extent his oppressed, grief-stricken mother. Father was a mentally ill, alcoholic bigamist, avid vegetarian and anti-slaver who “leased” slaves rather than owning them. Oh, and he happened to be the premier world famous Shakespearean actor who toured nationally and internationally 9 months out of every year. See what I mean, family dysfunction was predictable,… but by-golly the animals were safe around him; he ate nothing that had eyes. Dad’s personality make-up was a scary brew. Mental illness was exacerbated by alcoholism and an overwhelming need to be endlessly exceptional and the center of attention. He suffered from and acted upon delusions of grandeur. For instance when he was on tour, one of his young daughters died and was buried. When coming home he was beyond grief-stricken and his mania led him to believe he could bring his little girl back to life. He literally exhumed the her body and tried to prove it! Guess what, he failed. He had no clue how scary his irrational behavior was to his family and viewing neighbors—or more likely, he just didn’t care. It was all about him. As the book chronicled each family member’s life, the author went all over the place, which made it more confusing than interesting. I didn’t feel any new light was shed on how the family survived the most scandalous event of all—the assassination. There wasn’t any analysis of each person’s reflections or even small attempts at self-analysis. Most frustrating for me was how the author failed to convincingly show HOW John Wilkes Booth evolved into such a rabid Southern Confederate who believed Abe wanted to be King, thus deserved to die. It was mentioned he attended a boarding school when young for a short time and was influenced by a group of wealthy southern classmates. But surely that exposure alone doesn’t explain JWB’s extreme transition from his family’s viewpoints. Throughout the book there are short references to Abe Lincoln’s life path as compared to the Booth family’s. Both had alcoholic fathers, (JWB and his male siblings inherited it, Abe resisted,) both families were disabled by extreme grief as a result of child mortality, both suffered from some degree of mental illness (JWB was completely overcome by it, Abe was not,) both families believed in foretelling prophecies (Booth via visions, Lincoln via dreams,) and both JWB and Abe had always wanted to make enduring names for themselves—(both succeeded albeit in vastly different ways.) Ironically, both heads of household believed in the Union and were—at least philosophically—against slavery. Probably the weakest part of the author’s writing came from the narrator doing far too much “telling” about character details and far too little time “showing” how those details transformed into concrete behavior or human interactions. (The author has other best selling books and book awards, so she can write better.) If you’re curious about the sensational details, get the book at the library rather than buy one. Unlike John Wilkes Booth’s infamous bullet, the book “Booth” just didn’t hit the mark. In my humble opinion, of course.
Historical fiction “Booth” misses the mark  content media
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Karen Stephens
Mar 04, 2022
In What Are You Reading
A slim book of poetry that’s nature-focused and organized by season. The poems are short, but the collection takes longer to read than you’d think because it so often opens the door to reflection and relaxing contemplation. It’s a book of “hope springs eternal,” but isn’t sappy or saccharine. I especially like it’s title poem which I’d absolutely love to share. But it’s better you buy the collection to discover it yourself. 😉 And by the way, I read poetry, though have never written any myself. But after reading this unassuming gem, I have a poem of my own percolating. Perhaps someday I’ll share it. What more can one ask from a wee book? Thank you, poet Kate Larson! (2022 New Bay Books publication, available at www.newbaybooks.com for $10 US smackeroos. )
Hope and marvel expressed through poetry comes at a perfect time.  content media
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Karen Stephens
Mar 02, 2022
In What Are You Reading
The Rosie Project by New Zealander Graeme Simsion is usually referred to as a romantic comedy. But I think there‘s much more to it. (Meaning no sappy exclamations, heaving bodices or bulked up biceps here. Sorry, folks. 😉) Our leading man, Don, is very smart, but a socially inept gent “on the spectrum.” We find him trying to figure out how to live in a world that usually defies his sense of logic. Especially perplexing to him is how to go about finding a good spousal fit. He has one male friend, but since he’s a serial adulterer, he’s of little help coaching Don on how to establish a serious relationship. (Though he adds lots of comedy relief.) The strategies Don cooks up for his marital search are often humorous, always endearing, and ever-deserving of empathy. Don is a good guy with very different ways of looking at life and human interactions. This is an engaging light read sure to bring a grin and outright laugh. (And who doesn’t need help being light-hearted these days?) What makes this more than a typical shallow “rom-com” is how it encourages the reader to ponder the intricacies of human communication and miscommunication as well as our primal need for meaningful companionship. I rooted for Don and Rosie, but especially for Don. I bet you will, too. No spoiler intended, but there’s a follow up book, titled The Rosie Effect. (The Rosie Project was published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster.)
Courting from someone else’s shoes  content media
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Karen Stephens
Feb 06, 2022
In What Are You Reading
Good mystery uncovering inter-racial dramas during the big push for African-American voter registration in the South just before Voting Rights Legislation became law. In the 1960’s a young, white woman helps followers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. canvas and organize new voters. It’s considered an appalling act in her small Southern community. How dare a barely twenty-something, sheltered white woman mingle with—much less build relationships with those “coloreds?” And Lord have mercy, how could she possibly fall in love with a “colored” man? Surely she had gone mad, lost her mind! Lots of mean-spirited, unrelenting gaslighting takes place as family and neighbors pressure her to change her liberal ways. Within a month, hatred, prejudice and unbridled outage spurs violence, broken-hearts and a repugnant crime. Though there are suspects aplenty, no one is held accountable….for decades. In fact, the crime wasn’t considered worth investigating for a sheriff who mingled in his off hours with the Klan. (You get the picture.) Not until 2010 is the small town case of criminal bigotry finally unearthed and solved by injured family members demanding answers. In the process of excavating secrets upon insidious secrets, families and community members are torn apart and the danger and vindictiveness of “tribal thinking” is exposed. Once the truth reaches the light of day, fresh starts begin for those whose lives were most impacted —and even destroyed—by racists gone mad. Plot twists and a slow reveal hold interest. It’s up to the reader to decide if adequate justice —or sense of peace—was achieved.
And the venom lives on.  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 28, 2022
In What Are You Reading
“Cokie: A life well lived” by Steven V. Roberts (Harper 2021) Like millions, I was a big fan of accomplished journalist, news correspondent and non-fiction author, Cokie Roberts. I was anxious to learn more about what made her tick. After reading the book “Cokie,” I didn’t feel very enlightened. The important thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that her husband wrote it in the wake of her death. Many have called this book a tribute to his wife. But I thought it read much more like a love letter. He wanted us to use her life as a blueprint for being a good person, so he shared wonderful stories about her loyalty, generosity and thoughtfulness with friends, family and colleagues. It’s a sweet book. But I was looking forward to a much more objective book about her emotional and intellectual development over time. I wanted to know how she happened to transition from a stereotypical, baby boomer homemaker to a bonafide feminist. I wanted to know what motivated her beyond practicing her Catholic religion, marriage and child-rearing. How did she strategize to work through obstacles in the male dominated workplace? Steve Roberts focused on stories about their prolonged courtship and then sang her praises as wife, mother, and ever-reliable friend. Yes, he touched on her professionalism and achievements, (how could he not?) but he mostly shared stories one would hear at a class reunion…or at a wake over coffee and pastries from around the block. There were many examples of Ms. Roberts’ characteristics worthy of respect and emulation. I trust those stories are a balm for her surviving children, extended family and personal friends. A gift to them to be sure. I’m glad Cokie Roberts was well loved. But I know much more about Cokie, the accomplished, smart and shrewd person, by reading her own non-fiction books. Bless Steve Robert’s grieving heart for trying. Following are my favorite non-fiction books written by Cokie Boggs Roberts. “Founding Mother’s: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. (Easton Press 2004) “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation (William Morrow 2008) “We are our Mother’s Daughters” (Harper Perennial revised and expanded edition 2010.)
Wanting More from Cokie  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 23, 2022
In What Are You Reading
“Arpeggio of Redwings. Chesapeake Seasons: A Guide to Joy.” by Audrey Y. Scharmen (New Bay Books 2020.) This is one savory volume of short essays on loving and living daily family life with nature as part of the action. The beauty and magic of ephemeral, neighborhood happenings (especially related to birds, wildflowers and backyard gardening) are exquisitely conveyed. Even more poignant are the author’s memories of her own children and grandchildren developing their sense of natural wonder. The essays often read very poetic —especially if you’re a fan of poet Mary Oliver and the like. Those who love wildlife spaces beyond the author’s Chesapeake Bay Area will find plenty to relate to, cheer and ponder. It’s a very cozy read, full of whimsy, wonder and fairytale mysticism for anyone sentimental about seasons as each waxes and wanes. Members of organizations which focus on birding, gardening, native landscape restoration —-or good fairytales —-would enjoy this literary treat. Nature educators and protectors, add this to your night stand. It will reinforce your work immensely without being a “heavy academic” read. BTW, there are award-winning essays in this little treasure—enjoy.
A treat awaits.  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 19, 2022
In What Are You Reading
In societies’ where wealth and high-tech abide no limits, it’s not too hard to imagine a day when indulgent, but very well-intended parents can purchase an Android —an AF, Artificial Friend—to serve as their lonely child’s devoted playmate. (Something akin to a mechanized, loyal “familiar” literally standing by to support and affirm a child 24/7. ) In “Klara and the Sun” author Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf 2021) induces us to suspend disbelief to ponder the ramifications of such a scenario on his character Josie—a young, likable ill child. Better yet, he asks us to ponder AF Klara’s perspective, too. We are first introduced to android AF Klara as she is marketed in downtown storefronts to parents and children alike. Which AF looks best to you? Josie’s mom takes the bait. After purchase, Josie’s mother introduces Klara as merely a new member of the family. Not everyone buys into that concept, especially Dad. That creates a snag. (Of course it does!) Josie is ill. Her parents already lost one child to death. Josie’s mother, in particular, is hyper-protective and lives on tender-hooks worrying she’ll lose her Josie, too. And so, against Josie’s father’s wishes, Mom schemes up a scenario for Klara and Josie that’s dystopian at best, and diabolical at worst. A fine morality tale takes root. How is “existence” defined? Which types of existence rank higher than others? When is it acceptable for one parent’s decision to outrank the other? Does a child get a say in her own fate, does an AF? Juicy ethical dilemmas abound! I believe at the crux is the author’s examination of humans’ excessive anxiety and outright fear of loss —especially loss of attachment. How far will a terrified parent go to preserve a child’s identity? Are there any boundaries a parent won’t cross to secure a destiny they feel their child deserves, that they as parent deserves? And ultimately, who are we—as a society—to judge the ethics of a parent’s choice. And most haunting, does the entrepreneurial marketplace have no limits (no shame!) when capitalizing on parents’ most primal emotions and far-fetched desires. Just how much are humans willing to tinker with facts of attachment in this fleshy life? “Klara and the Sun” doesn’t give a lot of answers, but it sure posits lots of questions. Do we dare answer them? Post Script: Where does the Sun come in? AF Klara is solar-powered and conceives the Sun as an ever-benevolent entity to whom she can appeal on Josie’s. We all need our Gods, even AFs.
Klara and the Sun shines a light on primal parenthood  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 17, 2022
In What Are You Reading
“News of the World” by Paulette Jiles is an engaging historical fiction “road trip” set in 1870’s reconstruction era in Texas. It centers on a young, blue-eyed blond German girl, Johanna, whose settler family was killed by Kiowa Indians. She alone was spared death at age 6 and was taken to live with the Kiowa tribe and re-named Cicada. By age 10, when her assimilation into Native American culture was rock-solid, the US Army retrieved her from her Kiowa mother and father to be sent back to surviving German family. The smart, savvy, skeptical, angry, scared, confused and strong-willed Cicada wanted none of it. And she wasn’t one bit interested in becoming “re-civilized” for white culture either. Enter Captain Kidd, a 71 year old recent Civil War Vet. A well-intended traveler who makes his way from town to town reading outloud world-wide newspaper stories to audiences of isolated and/or illiterate customers for a dime a piece. Since he’s traveling south anyway, against his better judgement, he agrees to escort the 10 year old “White Indian” to extended family near San Antonio. During the spartan road trip perils are encountered; including marauders trying to buy—or steal if necessary, young blond Johanna for child prostitution (1800’s precursor to Epstein 😡.) While escorting her as safely as he could, old Captain Kidd ever- so-patiently —and compassionately— takes steps to earn traumatized Johanna’s trust. As he tries to help her recall her German and English languages (and “civilized” manners,) he gains respect for Johanna’s keen intelligence and will to live. And so, by seeing the re-seeding of human attachment and trust desperately needed for a child’s resilience, the reader is rewarded with an unusually touching connection between the Captain and the young survivor. It’s one of the sweetness relationships I’ve seen incrementally developed in literature. Both main character’s evolution was not just believable, but affirming and instructional. Post Script: Yes, the book’s main plot birthed a movie. But read the book, too— or listen to the audio whose narrator, Grover Gardner, is very good. The novel has more depth and scope. (Aren’t books always better than the movie?) Plus, the book lets you witness Johanna’s growth into adulthood, answering many questions readers may have; the movie doesn’t. (William Morrow 2016, 2017.)
“News of the World” is good news for readers.  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 13, 2022
In What Are You Reading
Highly recommend this biography of Edith Rockefeller McCormick by Andrea Friederici Ross. (Southern IL University Press 2020, 2021) She examines Edith’s rollercoaster life in the early 1900’s—when women were considered second-class citizens even if born into a family of incredible wealth and influence. I had no idea how much she contributed to arts and culture of all kinds—and not just in Chicago. Her impact on medicine is eerily relevant today, she and her husband helped create McCormick Memorial Institute for Infectious Diseases and provided underwriting for the Journal of Infectious diseases. What an intellect she had! And she nurtured intellect in others by supporting museums, opera houses and the early careers of the likes of writer James Joyce and psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung. BUT what makes this a fast read is the family back-story dogged by male arrogance, severe gender roles, mental illness and Baptist religion. Then there are the SCANDALS—we’re talking free love and a woman following her own counsel (oh, my!) Some details depressing and heart-breaking, others laugh out-loud funny and bizarre. In a relatively short life, Edith achieved and went-through a lot. If she’d been allowed similar privilege as her younger male sibling enjoyed, I‘m sure she would have achieved even more…. if you’ve ever envied the rich and famous, this biography will surely cure you of it. Edith’s was a hot-mess, but she still forged a lot of good.
What if this woman had been a man?  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 08, 2022
In What Are You Reading
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Ballantine Books, 2021) is best listened to, not just read. Narrator Ray Potter makes this science fiction so believable, both the science and the humor Weir pulled out of his hat. Our lead, a scientist fallen from academic grace turned humble school science teacher, becomes the unlikely person charged with saving Earth, and all its inhabitants, from extinction due to an impending ice age. Once venturing into space, it turns out our lead isn’t the only intelligent galaxy entity trying to solve the disastrous, fast-approaching problem. And thus the stage is set for one of the best (and funniest) male buddy stories I’ve encountered. I’m not typically a science fiction reader, but I was glad I took a chance on Project Hail Mary. I stand satisfyingly converted. And by all means, chow down on the audiobook.
A book to savor on audio.  content media
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Karen Stephens
Jan 07, 2022
In What Are You Reading
​If you like historical fiction with intriguing , evolving female leads, I’m suggesting a good read: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press, 2021 ​It’s an authentic, no-holds-barred portrayal of U. S Dust Bowl and Depression years, primarily focusing on the impact on farm families’ and seasonal migrant’s experiences. Fat Cats and government-types profiting from the crisis also have a say. ​Though I’ve read quit a bit about the Dust Bowl years, I learned new jaw-dropping details. I suspect due to the author’s extensive research of first-hand account memoirs by farmwomen who had no successful crops, gardens or livestock to tend. Family planning was nil and infant mortality high, so even child--rearing took up less of their time. That crisis gave the women time to write down their hopes, but mostly their angst and constant disillusionment. ​The novel dug deep into issues of personal self -esteem within family dysfunction and function. A fine point was put onto societal mores, expectations, biases and prejudices. All those factors ricocheted to stir up the novel’s unfolding drama; a crisis in US History not to be overlooked for lessons. ​Female empowerment and self-determination evolve over generations. And most often results from characters groping with struggles inherent with systemic male domination in family, community and government. A mother-daughter relationship key to the plot, both loving and contemptuous, rings especially true as developmental issues erupt. ​This isn’t an “escapist” read, but a very meaningful one that foreshadows many contemporary issues, such as: class ,culture, racial and gender inequities, voting rights, unionization, environmental crisis and community contagious illness practices. And, of course, the Dust Bowlregions becoming barren habitat, reminds us that today’s homelessness is nothing new to the U.S. ​Most haunting, for me at least, was how the book highlights the historic struggles our population has when it comes to deciding which persons or groups get to define which values, practices and procedures are deemed ‘true-blue American,” and which are decried as traitorously“UN-American.” ​While bringing historic family struggles to life, often in infuriating and desperately sad ways, the novel’s recurring theme resonates with me still: “Hard times don’t last, love does. “ That’s worth remembering. Sidenote: Kristin Hannah has published a mixed bag of novels, around 20 to date. The Four Winds has become a book club favorite. Very worth your time is Hannah’s The Nightingale (St. Martin’s Press, 2015 ) and her The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press.) From kstephen@ilstu.edu, 1-6-22
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Karen Stephens

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