2014 literature year-in-review

It was nearly three years ago that my Kroymann aunts, cousins and I formed The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club. As with any group, there have been lapses in our gatherings, schedules get tight and life’s pace quickens, yet through this we’ve managed to keep at it. And I think we’re all pretty grateful for the constancy this group provides.

While all our meetings eventually dissolve into fits of laughter listening to one another’s stories, we’re getting better at actually talking about our books. But honestly? The books may be the reason for our gatherings, but it’s our relationships, the varying hues love takes between family members, that keep us coming back.

Given the busy time December is, last year we did not choose a book for our January 2014 gathering and did not kick off the year until February with Mary Lawson’s “Crow Lake,” the story of four orphaned siblings and how they navigate life in their quiet Canada community.

In March, we took on the issue of brain injury in the story “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova followed by April’s choice of “Emily’s Story” by Wisconsin writer Clark Kidder who some of you may remember provided the backdrop for the “West by Orphan Train” documentary that premeired in DeWitt earlier this fall.

May had us reading Nora Ephron’s reflections in “I Remember Nothing,” before taking a break in June. July had us enjoying the mysterious young-adult tome “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart that kept us guessing until the very end.

With the Iowa State Fair and school’s early start, we skipped August and resumed in September with Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller.” Although several of us agreed there were ways to easily trim this 480-page behemoth, the instinct for survival in Nazi Germany reminded us how easy it is for human nature to spin out of control in the face of “mob mentality.”

Like January, April, June and August, October was also a miss, but in November we tackled “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. A non-fiction reflection of the Dust Bowl era told by survivors of that man-made disaster, “The Worst Hard Time” provided the backdrop for Ken Burns’ 2012 PBS documentary ”The Dust Bowl.”

One Dec. 1 we met under the guise of discussing that month’s selection, Lisa Scottoline’s “Don’t Go,” but used it as an excuse to enjoy the PBS premiere of “West by Orphan Train.”

After discussing Scottoline’s mystery about a podiatrist serving in Afghanistan whose wife dies while he’s overseas. We agreed this riveting whodunit kept us guessing until the last pages. Then we watched the movie and just as when we read “Emily’s Story,” again we were astounded by the strength of orphan train riders who truly rose above terrible circumstances. ***

At the end of this month’s meeting, one person had a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge” and offered to let another member read it. When all of us piped up that we wanted to borrow it, we opted to make that our January 2015 choice. Already, we’re off to a better start than in 2014! (And having finished it, I now understand why it was recently made into a mini-series for HBO! A truly wonderful tale of community, marriage, perspective and age.)

In addition to The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club, my nightstand held a steady flow of varied and enjoyable literature starting with the awkwardly wonderful David Sedaris and his nutty collection of essays, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.”

Swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, I simply adore author Anne Lemott. Recently she authored a trio of small tomes, the first of which I read this year, 2012’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I have yet to devour subsequent books, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” but they are on my bookshelf, at the ready.

Like Sedaris and Lamott, some authors you can absolutely trust to captivate and entrance while others? Not so much. Fortunately, of the 26 books I read this year, only four were disappointing: “The Outcasts” by Kathleen Kent, “Whores on the Hill” by Colleen Curan, Marissa Silver’s “Mary Coin” and, in spite of its Pulitzer, Donna Tart’s “The Goldfinch.”

The rest were delish, including Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” about a researcher who is sent into the Amazon in search of colleague’s remains. Though the book’s ending leaves you to decide what happens, the story and writing were gorgeous.

Similarly “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” by Jan-Philipp Sendker was a sweeping tale of an adult daughter’s search for her missing father that takes her from New York to Burma. Captivating in the telling of the two lives her father lived, this tale was a beautiful example of love and sacrifice.

Additional adult books included “California” by Edan Lepucki, which I wrote about in September, “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin, “The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti, Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel “The Bean Trees,” Fr. Thomas Keating’s “Finding Grace at the Center” and “The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon who also wrote “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” adapted for tv starring Rosie O’Donnell.

For lighter reads, I ventured into young-adult lit. In addition to “We Were Liars,” I discovered “Radiance” by Alyson Noel, the first in a series about a young girl’s mission in the Afterlife. Then Ransom Rigg’s came out with his second in his “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series, “Hollow City,” continuing the journey of the peculiar children’s effort to save their beloved mistress Miss Peregrine.

Finally, this year saw a few books adapted to screen, including “Rosewater,” the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s John Stewart. Based on the personal narrative by Maziar Bahari, “Then They Came For Me” tells of Bahari’s imprisonment and torture in an Iranian prison for his journalism. I’ve yet to see the film, but this book reminded me that despite our imperfect system, it’s good to be American.

To finish out 2014, I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” a weird look at the various idols and stories that built our history and shape our present views.

While 26 books in a year could be many to some or just a few to others, whatever you do KEEP READING! Happy New Year!!!

Originally published 27 December 2014 in The Observer.

Film, music & make-up: a great week of area entertainment

Movies and mayhem, both musical and otherwise. What a week it’s been!

Without a doubt, Monday’s premiere of the documentary “West By Orphan Train” at DeWitt’s Operahouse Theatre crushed anyone’s expectations.

Hosting the event was the Friends group from the Frances Banta Waggoner Community Library and we offered a secret preview that afternoon to residents of local assisted living facilities. With 10 people attending from Maggie’s House in DeWitt and another 20 traveling from Grand Haven in Eldridge, we had a solid start to the day’s event.

orphan train mo & mac behind depotSpending the remainder of the afternoon with film director Colleen Bradford Krantz and Clark Kidder, author of “Emily’s Story,” I took them to Ann Soenksen’s to show Kidder where his grandmother’s school would have stood while also allowing him to visualize the general area of the Pelham Farm where his grandmother lived for several months. Eventually we stood at the Malone train crossing, where Emily arrived in Clinton County via orphan train from New York.

When we returned to DeWitt and walked toward the Operahouse at 5:30 Monday night, people were already trickling into the lobby. By 6:10 p.m., as Kidder’s book supply started running low and the crowd swelled, all of us began to fret over the theater’s capacity of 236.

Within 20 minutes, the house was full!

Opting to offer a second showing, we rolled the 60-minute film early and had another 150 people return at 8 p.m. for that screening!

While hindsight remains 20/20 and both Krantz and Kidder agreed the afternoon preview would have been a great option for others, no one could have prepared us for the wonderful interest in this project.

Admittedly, we live in a pretty cool area. Not only do we support the arts, but we have a solid interest in the orphan train story due, in part, to the Delmar Depot.

Many people connected with Krantz and Kidder, sharing stories of family members who came to the Midwest on an orphan train. One of the more exciting meetings was with a Muscatine woman whose mother was an orphan train rider and is still alive!

Iowa Public Television will be partnering with Krantz and Kidder for another local showing at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, Sunday Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. A tentative IPTV airing is set for Monday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.

As if I didn’t get my art “fix” Monday, Tuesday was the Northeast Marching Band Extravaganza in which both the middle and high school marching bands performed in the gymnasium.

When we moved our family into the Northeast School District nearly a decade ago, we attended a football game and watched a small, rather rag-tag marching band take the field. Both Marty and I came from strong high school music programs and we were adamant that both our children participate.

In the few years since our first experience watching the Northeast Marching Band, the program has burgeoned under the tutelage of Gerald Creger, Matthew Bolahan and Laura Horst, making Marty and I (selfishly) very excited for the coming years!

During Tuesday night’s concert, the middle school band began their set with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” I barely stifled a giggle as Creger prefaced the song by claiming it’s a mainstay for anyone with a guitar, electric or air. Myself? I remember killing it on the keyboard. Seriously, few are the chords less familiar!

After a smokin’ hot rendering of that classic, the band proceeded with the theme from “The Pirates of the Carribean” before closing with an impressive parade number.

Prior to the high schoolers taking the floor, Creger noted the band participated in the Musky Marching Invitational in Muscatine where they won the third place trophy. They also took part in the Iowa High School State Marching Band Festival at the newly renovated Brad Street Stadium in Davenport where they achieved an ‘Excellent’ rating.

The gym then filled with the music of Billy Joel, a multi-piece homage titled “Piano Man-the music of Billy Joel.” From “Only the Good Die Young” to “Air” (Dublinesque) it was both exciting and gorgeous to witness.

Hats off to the seniors and we excitedly wait the 2015 season to hear how the younger performers try to fill your shoes. Great work and many thanks for all your hard work!!!!

And finally, what Halloween is complete without ghouls, especially in Charlotte? Yep, the local haunted house is baaaack!

After 2012’s sudden and soul-crushing closing of the Charlotte Haunted House, Mike Jensen and the rest of the Citizens For Charlotte crew resurrected this community tradition inside the walls of the old stone Charlotte school.

With last weekend’s opener attracting nearly 1,000 people (official headcount was 989), it’s clear this town gives a great scare. Consider joining us tonight for the final screams of the 2014 season!

Originally published 1 November 2014 in The Observer.

Movie sheds light on orphan train history

It was 2000 when I first heard about the orphan trains. I was working as a stringer for The Quad City Times and was assigned a piece on the Delmar Depot and a Maquoketa man who landed in the area after riding an orphan train from the east.

He was quiet and kind, showing great patience with my nervous, cub reporter-self. Inviting me into his home, I sat with him and his adult daughter while he shared his experience.

wilton orphan depotIt wasn’t a happy one. I remember he swallowed back tears telling me of the pain he felt being given away. He talked of being taken in, not as a son, but as a farm hand, and how the other kids at the farm would make fun of his eastern accent, specifically for how he said the word “horse” as “haws.” He said it was hard coming on an orphan train because, as he put it, he wasn’t wanted.

Not to wax saccharine, but in spite of this man’s sad start in life, I remember looking at his daughter and thinking of the love he eventually found in marriage and creating his own family. Surely it doesn’t replace the early love lost, but it must’ve filled at least a little of the empty space. My inexperience cost me. I didn’t ask the question, and he’s since died, taking his story with him.

Oddly enough, what Wisconsin author Clark Kidder wrote in “Emily’s Story” about his own grandmother’s coming from New York to Iowa on an orphan train echoed a similar experience.

First being taken in by the Pelham family of rural DeWitt, Clark noted it wasn’t a good environment for Emily. She was then taken in by a LeClaire family. Again, more pain awaited her. In fact Emily was never formally adopted, rather she grew up in Wisconsin, staying with families that gave her shelter in exchange for housework and childcare.

As with the Maquoketa gentleman, Emily’s joy did not take flight, it seemed, until a friendship with Earl Kidder sparked into romance and a family of her own grew up around her.

Since that mid-90s newspaper assignment the story of the orphan trains remained a part of me. Maybe it’s the regular drives through Delmar and past Maria Casad’s shadowy mural of train passengers, or maybe it’s the unsettling disbelief that such things took place for 50+ years from 1854 to 1930.

Given today’s standards for adoption, it’s surreal to imagine loading trains with orphans and indigent children, and sending them blindly into an unknown. Obviously organizers hoped they would find new, loving families, but there were no guarantees.

As the children were paraded across stages like that of DeWitt’s Operahouse Theatre, reciting a poem or a psalm, they could be taken into the home of a predator just as easily as that of a caring family, eager to give shelter and love.

I still question why I never learned about it in school, as if it was some ugly mark kept hidden, forgotten in a corner of our history. I marvel at how few people are aware of this period. While the movement was sparked out of concern and love for those children, as with so many altruistic efforts, pure intentions are easily sullied by the harmful actions of a few.

Monday the history of this orphan train experiment will come to the big screen in DeWitt with the premiere of the film “West By Orphan Train.”

Through an odd twist of events, Clark reached out to one of my dearest college friends, Colleen Bradford Krantz whose 2010 documentary “Train to Nowhere” on illegal immigration, sparked her book of the same name.

Clark pitched the idea of doing a documentary on the orphan trains, using his grandmother’s story as the framework. Colleen agreed and pulled in Iowa Public Television to partner on the project.

In planning the film schedule, Colleen realized how close my daughter, Moira, was in age to Emily when she rode an orphan train to Malone Station east of DeWitt. With Moira portraying Clark’s grandmother, additional children were needed to portray other orphans and Maclane happened to fit one of the costumes, serving as an extra for filming at the depots in West Liberty and Wilton.

Even though witnessing movie magic was an enjoyable experience, it remained a sad look at our nation’s past. Watching Moira wander, alone, along Anne Soenksen’s property near the original Malone Station; seeing Maclane sit on a suitcase and stare across the West Liberty railroad tracks . . . my mind continued to turn over the sadness experienced by so many young ones.

Reading “Emily’s Story,” I gaped at the strength necessary to withstand rejection at such a fundamental level, in many cases by your own family and then by adoptive families taking you in solely for your ability to work.

Seeing mine and the other children in period dress left me emotional. Their little bodies. Their long, sad faces. It was hard NOT to imagine the fear Emily and thousands of others must’ve felt as their trains chugged toward the next stop . . . being marched across a stage, holding their backs straight, chins up, hoping to be chosen by a nice family.

I know not every story was one of sadness. In spite of her tough start, “Emily’s Story” is a beautiful telling of one girl’s willingness to persevere. In fact, after my book club read it, a single word, “spitfire” continually sprang to mind whenever I thought of Emily. She simply never gave up. And thanks to her grandson’s book and Colleen’s film, her story and that of other orphan train riders are preserved for the ages.

Monday, consider joining Clark, Colleen and the Friends of Frances as we host the premiere of “West By Orphan Train” at The Operahouse Theatre. This free event begins at 6 p.m. with Clark signing copies of “Emily’s Story.” The movie will show at 7 p.m. and a question-and-answer period with Colleen and Clark will conclude the event.

*Unfortunately I was unable to locate a copy of my orphan train piece in the early 2000s and did not want to risk misidentifying the name of the Maquoketa gentleman I interviewed. My deepest apologies for the omission.

Originally published 25 October 2014 in The Observer.