Friday Book Whimsy: Book Challenge, The Last

Today I will conclude the book challenge I have been pondering for the last few weeks. Click here to see Part I and Part II.

A book that reminds you of home: It sort of depends on what I consider home. For this purpose, however, I am calling home the place where I spent my formative years — Nebraska. Therefore, the book that most reminds me of my home is My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I, of course, am nothing like the main character — Antonia Shimerda. Her family are Bohemian immigrants who lived and farmed in southeast Nebraska in the late 1800s. She befriends Jim, who is newly arrived from the east coast. The reason this reminds me of growing up in Nebraska is because the people are down-to-earth, hard-working, honest, and live simple lives. That describes my experience growing up in the Midwest.

Favorite romance book: Can you really get more romantic than Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte? I mean, the wild and enormously troubled Mr. Rochester sees the good in the poor orphan girl who has led a tragic life up until she becomes a governess to Mr. Rochester’s child. the book apparently illustrates classism, sexism, and all sorts of -isms, but I simply adore the love between the two main characters, even after he loses his eyesight. Oh, and the crazy wife in the attic.

Favorite male character: Lots of favorite male characters, but I’m going to go with Father Tim, from Jan Karon’s Mitford series. I wish that Father Tim could be my spiritual advisor and my friend.

Favorite female character: I like many female characters, but one who has stayed in my mind is Eleanor Oliphant, from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I loved everything about Eleanor Oliphant. I love her outlook on life, I loved how she rose above her dysfunctional upbringing, and I loved her friendship with Raymond. I reviewed the book here.

Your favorite writer: Man, this is a hard one to pin down, but given my answer to the last question which follows, I think it would have to be the late Kent Haruf. When this Colorado author passed away in 2014, I literally cried, knowing that there would never be another story about fictional Holt, Colorado. I own every one of his books, and since I’m a dedicated library enthusiast, that’s saying a lot.

Your favorite book of all time: That would have to be Plainsong. The story takes place in the fictional small town of Holt, on the eastern plains of Colorado. It introduces a group of people who are only marginally connected, but who come together as though they were a family. The dialogue is as true as in any book I have ever read. The writing is lyrical and spoke to my heart. The characters are realistic and likeable, though some are broken. The McPheron brothers — two old bachlors who are ranchers — are wonderful and true.  Eventide takes over where Plainsong leaves off.

Well, what do you think of all of my choices? What are your choices?

Friday Book Whimsy: Was the Ending the Same?

First posted on March 28, 2014

I often say life is too short to read a bad book. And of course, by “bad book” I mean a book I’m not enjoying. There are simply too many books out there that I want to read to spend any time reading something I don’t like. That philosophy has probably caused me to miss out on a lot of books that get better after the first 100 pages. Oh well.

Having said that, it is probably inconsistent to say that I will, however, reread a book. Using the same logic, it would appear life is too short to spend time on a book when you know how it ends. For some reason, that fact doesn’t trouble me at all.

So here is a list of 5 books that not only WOULD I reread, but frequently HAVE….

manhattanbridge01b1. I was between books one evening recently. I finished what I was reading and didn’t want to get up out of bed to download the ebook that the Mesa Public Library had notified me was available. So I went on my Nook’s library and saw with great delight that I had purchased A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith some time ago, a fact I had totally forgotten. It was like running into an old friend, right there in my own bed!

The book is about the Nolan family who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. At the beginning of the book, Francie Nolan is 11 and the story is told primarily through her eyes. The Nolans are poor and struggling, but survive despite obstacle after obstacle, much like the tree that somehow survives in the desolate empty lot Francie sees from her bedroom window. A metaphor. Get it? I probably first read the book when I was 12 or 13, and loved it so much. I have read it many times since, but there’s nothing like the first time you read a good book, is there?

2. I was probably only 8 or 9 when I first read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Oh my heavens, did I love that book. I probably read it three or four times just during my adolescence. The first time I read the book, I can’t even begin to tell you how I cried and cried at one particular sad event. I was heartbroken.Annex - Leigh, Janet (Little Women)_01

Little Women is the story of the four March girls, who live quiet lives in New England as their father serves as a chaplain during the Civil War. They are guided lovingly by Marmee – their mother. (I seriously wanted to begin calling my mom Marmee, but knew that wouldn’t fly, even as an 8-year-old.) Each of the girls is very different. I think every girl who reads the book identifies with one of them. I identified with Meg. I wasn’t quite adventurous enough to connect in the same way with Jo. By the way, the story has been made into a movie three times – 1933, 1949, and 1994. The movie made in 1949 is far-and-away the best. The 1994 movie? Susan Sarandon as Marmee? Nooooooooooo!

3. One book that I have read, oh, I don’t know, ten or twelve thousand times is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. From the get-go, my heart absolutely broke as I read about poor Jane’s childhood, both as the abused ward of her aunt and then as a

Comb your hair for heaven's sake! What are you, blind?

Comb your hair for heaven’s sake! What are you, blind?

student at the Lowood School. The child couldn’t get a break. Even her beloved friend Helen dies – in Jane’s arms no less. She becomes the governess for little Adele, and – yada yada yada – she and Mr. Rochester live happily ever after (despite the fact that he’s scarred from the fire, bitter, and permanently blinded.

I remember thinking that the book was the most romantic story I had ever read. After all, it isn’t like Jane was some gorgeous woman; she was just a Plain – well – Jane. Still, Mr. Rochester loved her from the very beginning. And oh, the back story! Does it get any better than that?

great plains4. I think that My Antonia was required reading when I was in high school, and I loved it immediately. It helped that the story took place in Nebraska (where my high school was located), and in fact, not even too terribly far from my home town. Willa Cather’s writing is glorious, and I frankly love all of her books. But there was something about Antonia herself that makes it my favorite.

Antonia comes with her family from Bohemia to settle in the Nebraska prairie. The Shimerda family had not been farmers in Bohemia, and have a hard time surviving in this new and terribly hard life in Nebraska. She is befriended by Jim Burton, and their friendship is a critical element of the book. I love the descriptions of the Nebraska prairie, and the development of Antonia through the years. She might be my most beloved character of all books I’ve ever read. Might be. Not committing. For a review I did of this book, click here.

5. There is actually a book I read once a year. At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon, is the story of an Episcopalian priest who lives in the North Carolina village of Mitford. It’s not exactly accurate to say the story is about Father Tim, though he is the main character. mitfordThe story is about the entangled lives of all of the quirky people who make up this town. They are caricatures, no doubt about it. Still, I love them all and I never get tired of them. But mostly I embrace Father Tim’s absolute love of God and trust in him. I love the way he turns to the Lord in all things. I read the book every year to help me learn to pray. By the way, I read the Karon’s Mitford Christmas book Shepherds Abiding every December as well.

There you have it. There are more, but these five were top of mind.  I didn’t include the Bible, because it goes without saying that it is a part of my life.

Nana’s Note: All these years later, I still agree with my list; however, I would add Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, which is perhaps my favorite book ever.

The Swedish Village in Nebraska

Last Friday when Bec and I were in Columbus on our nostalgia tour,  we were somewhat at loose ends. We had driven around the town the night before, seeing all the things we wanted to see. That takes no more than an hour because Columbus ain’t that big. We had eaten lunch at Glur’s Tavern, its claim to fame being that it’s the oldest continuously operating bar in Nebraska. We drove up 13th Street and down 14th Street to replicate the activities of our youth, when we probably did that same thing about a cajillion times. Unlike the days of our youth, we didn’t see anyone we knew.

“What do you wanna do?” I asked Bec.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “What do you wanna do?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “What do you wanna do?

Jen saved us by FaceTiming us about that time. Thank heavens.

“Here’s what you need to do,” she ordered us, er, suggested to us. “Drive to Stromsburg.”


Stromsburg, Nebraska, is about 35 miles north of Columbus. Despite its close proximity, neither Bec nor I had ever visited the unofficial Swedish capital of Nebraska. I know for a fact, however, that there were folks from Stromsburg who made their way on a regular basis to Columbus to buy their bread at Gloor’s Bakery back in the day. I know this because the reason Jen knows about Stromsburg is that a very good friend of hers (who also lives in Fort Collins) was born and reared there, and her family did exactly that. Small world.

Jen promised us it would be worth the drive. If nothing else, she insisted there was a very good coffee shop in the town center. I frankly doubted it, having seen the dismal cafes that most small towns feature. Still, see above. We had nothing else to do.

The drive is pretty if you like that sort of scenery (which I do). There are lots of fields of corn and soybeans with a silo or two thrown in. Very Willa Cather-like. I’m waiting to see Antonia Shimerda (of My Antonia) running across the field, except that she’s Bohemian and not Swedish…..

Anyway, it wasn’t hard to find the town center because the entire village is only about one square mile. But its outside appearance surprised me…..

…..and its indoor appearance astounded me….

It was clear that this was not your typical midwestern farm town coffee shop. It was quiet, and Bec and I enjoyed our lattes and even did a bit of gift shopping. The proprietor was a pleasant young woman who had grown up in Stromsburg. She encouraged us to walk around the town square and visit some of the other shops.

We did just that. We stopped at the small grocery store and took note that it had nearly everything a body could want, but just not 175 brands of each. There were a handful of shoppers in the store.

After perusing the market, we went next door to The Apothecary which plays double-duty as a gift store and the town’s pharmacy. Bec purchased a couple of items, and as we went to pay, we struck up a conversation with the proprietor/pharmacist, a woman by the name of Marsha Yungdahl. The story she told us is quite remarkable.

Once upon a time there was a man who grew up in the small Nebraska town of Stromsburg. As so often happens, he went away to school, planning never to return. He made a considerable amount of money doing whatever it was that he did. But the thing is, he DID return, along with his wife and family, eager to bring up his children in a safe, small-town environment with good schools and nice people.

He didn’t just return, however. He made it his mission to revive the town. He poured money into improvements, and — perhaps even more important — he talked other townsfolk into helping spruce up the village. In the years since he’s returned to Stromsburg, the town has transformed. There is a health clinic, a dentist and doctor, a butcher in the grocery store who appeals to people from as far away as Lincoln, an extremely progressive elementary school, and a bed-and-breakfast. When I asked Ms. Yungdahl where people go to do their big grocery shop, she seemed surprised. “Why, they mostly shop next door,” she said.

As for Ms. Yungdahl, her story is quite similar. She met her husband in Pharmacy School at the University of Nebraska. He grew up in Stromsburg and never intended to return. Until they did. Why? To raise their family in a safe environment near to grandparents.

And that says it all…..

Susie Reichmuth and Marsha Yungdahl are happy residents of Stromsburg, Nebraska.

You might remember that Jen and I just visited Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where The Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond and her husband are almost single-handedly revitalizing the town. In that post, I expressed my concern that when her brand is no longer popular, the town might suffer. It feels to me that Stromsburg is a bit more organic, and less likely to suffer such a fate.

At any rate, Bec and I felt quite proud of ourselves for having discovered such a hidden treasure in the cornfields of Nebraska.

Oh, and thanks Jen.

Germodian Poliswerian

The Nebraska town in which I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life could pretty much have been dreamed up by Willa Cather. Almost everybody had jobs that related in some respect to farming. They raised crops themselves. They sold farm implements. They provided clothing for farmers. They worked on farmers’ teeth or broken bones. They gave vaccinations to farm animals. They sold bread and donuts to farmers. Don’t get me wrong; we didn’t walk around with pieces of hay sticking out of our mouths. Well, to be honest, some of us did, but my point is that we weren’t all a bunch of hicks. It’s just that our community relied on farming. That was probably true of most communities throughout the Midwest back when I was a child.

What’s more, we were all white. I’m pretty sure I’m right when I say that no one that lived in my community back in the 50s and 60s was what we would today call a person of color. The rumor I always heard was that there was a city ordinance that prohibited a non-Caucasian person to live in my town. I’m pretty sure that was an urban myth because it would seem to me that even back then (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that would have been, if not against federal law, at least against moral law. But whether or not that was true, what is certain is that the community consisted of only Caucasians.  By the way, that is no longer true. There is certainly a significant Hispanic population as evidenced by the fact that there are actually restaurants featuring Mexican food, and I’m not talking about the Taco John that opened about the same time I left for college.

My mother’s parents were both Polish, a Siemek married a Micek. My father was Swiss, a first generation American. When my parents got married in 1947, it wasn’t uncommon for people of one nationality to marry another from that same nationality as required by their parents. Mom and Dad always said that their parents never blinked an eye about a person of Polish descent marrying a person of Swiss descent. Perhaps my paternal grandparents were so happy to be Americans that it didn’t matter who my dad married. After all, the United States was the great melting pot.

What I do know, however, is that as children and teenagers, my friends and I were very cognizant of our nationality, and identified each other by our heritage. I had friends who were Irish, and Dutch, and Czechoslovakian and Polish. It was something that, for reasons I can’t quite explain, really mattered to us. I always was proud that I could limit my ancestry to two nationalities. Others were a bit more, well, watered down.

In some ways, it makes me sad that our kids are losing their sense of historical background in this melting pot. Court tells his children they are – take a deep breath – Germodian Poliswerian. For the record, this is a term he invented to include all of their backgrounds – German, Cambodian, Polish, Swiss, and Hungarian.

I love that my mother prepared Polish meals, although she never identified them as such. For example, she called it cabbage meatballs, but now I realize they are golobki. We ate kielbasa and soft boiled eggs for our Easter breakfast, and now I know that it was a Polish tradition. My grandmother often made a pie that we cleverly called Grammie’s Swiss Apple Pie. Upon further investigation recently, I learned that her pie is a typical food served in Switzerland, and it’s called apfelwahe. I featured her recipe in one of my blog posts.

My grandkids are very interested in their ancestry, and that makes me happy. As people from one generation beget people from another generation, the heritage gets more and more convoluted. While our McLain grandkids identify heavily with their Scottish ancestry (thanks in large part to the time their father spent in Scotland while in college, his wedding attire of a kilt, and his hiring of a bagpiper who “piped in the haggis” for one of the kids’ multicultural nights at school), they are in fact aware that they also have a lot of Polish and some English and even a little dab of Serbian in their blood. Joseph and Micah also have some Polish blood, and some English, Irish and French.

As for Kaiya, Mylee, and Cole, they are Germodian Poliswerian. But they are half Cambodian, and I’m so happy that their maternal grandmother – who came to the United States from Cambodia in the early 1980s – prepares them Cambodian food and I assume will teach them Cambodian customs, as will their mother. It’s true that right now they won’t eat the food. But they will some day, and they will maybe even learn to prepare it themselves. I hope so.

Barely related to my post, here are new photos of two of my own descendants…..


This post linked to Grammy’s Grid.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Homesman

The HomesmanThe only thing I like more than reading a novel that takes place in the Old West is when that novel takes place in Nebraska. While no novel will compare with Willa Cather’s amazing My Antonia, I always enjoy reading about what my home state was like in the 1800s.

I so often have no recollection of how I come across certain books, and The Homesman, by Glendon Swarthout is no exception. I’m on lots of book email sites and there’s always good ol’ Amazon and/or Goodreads to make suggestions. Often the suggestions are eerily on target. This recommendation certainly was.

The driving character in The Homesman is Mary Bee Cuddy and she is a fictional character I won’t soon forget. Cuddy is a strong woman, unmarried, who single-handedly runs one of the most successful homesteads in the never-named small Nebraska community of Swarthout’s imagination.

An unbearable winter in this part of the pioneer west has left three hard-working women literally out of their minds. Their husbands are unable and unwilling to care for them. The area’s kind minister knows that the only thing to do is to get them back to the family they left back east to come to the untamed Nebraska territory with their husbands to find prosperity. He has a connection in Iowa who will make sure these women are reconnected with family. Unfortunately, he is unable to convince any of the husbands to accompany these women east to Iowa.

Mary Bee Cuddy offers to be the one to make sure these women are safely returned to their families. Despite the minister’s concern, he realizes no one else is stepping up and something must be done.

Circumstances bring Cuddy together with a scoundrel calling himself George Briggs. Cuddy saves his life in exchange for his promise to help her in her difficult journey.

Their journey is the crux of the story.

Swarthout’s two main characters are complex and remarkable. The story is heart-warming in parts and terribly, terribly sad in other parts. Cuddy and Briggs grudgingly become admirers of one another. And always, always in the background of the story are the three insane women. It’s a fascinating storyline.

The ending isn’t necessarily what I would have chosen, but on the other hand, the ending is what makes the novel believable and compellingly readable.

The book has been made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, which I promptly watched on Netflix. While the movie follows the book fairly reliably, Swarthout’s descriptions of the unimaginable winter and unthinkable circumstances which led to the women’s insanity was much more detailed and therefore more understandable.

I enjoyed The Homesman very much.

Here is a link to the book.