“That you are only as interesting as you are useful to someone.”

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This is the story of Molly, a 17-year old orphan on her umpteenth foster family, and Vivian, a 92-year old survivor on one of the infamous Orphan Trains that transported orphaned, homeless and abandoned children from the East to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. Vivian was only one of about 200,000 orphan train children. I had a hard time grappling with that number, and then I googled how many kids are in foster care in the US today and it’s more than twice the number of orphan train children, or about 415,000+. So basically we’ve been throwing kids away our entire national life.

A lot of recent YA novels are about throwaway children and many of those are about kids trying to survive in the broken US foster care system (Katie McGarry’s Pushing the Limits series, Bill Cameron’s Property of the State, jumping genres and countries the movie Lion). They all share one trait: they are often agonizing reads. Jeebus, can these kids ever get a break?

This book isn’t like that. I like Molly and Vivian a lot, although I understood Molly better. They’re both strong individuals determined to make a life for themselves, and Vivian’s even strong enough to start over at 92. They have baggage, of course, who wouldn’t given their beginnings.

When Vivian describes how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers, Molly nods. She knows full well what it’s like to tamp down your natural inclinations, to force a smile when you feel numb. After a while you don’t know what your own needs are anymore. You’re grateful for the slightest hint of kindness, and then, as you get older, suspicious. Why would anyone do anything for you without expecting something in return? And anyway–most of the time they don’t. More often than not, you see the worst of people. You learn that most adults lie. That most people only look out for themselves. That you are only as interesting as you are useful to someone.

Ouch, but it’s earned life experience, and it’s theirs. Despite that they find ways to reach out to each other, and in the end, to save each other. Or maybe help each other save themselves. Recommended.

All my reviews on Goodreads.

Scammers Break The Kindle Store

A wake-up call for all readers who mistakenly think quality writing is found at the top of KU lists.

*Full disclosure: None of the books I publish myself are on KU. We tried it once and lost a bunch of money.

David Gaughran

On Friday, a book jumped to the #1 spot on Amazon, out of nowhere; it quickly became obvious that the author had used a clickfarm to gatecrash the charts.

The Kindle Store is officially broken.

This is not the first time this has happened and Amazon’s continued inaction is increasingly baffling. Last Sunday, a clickfarmed title also hit #1 in the Kindle Store. And Amazon took no action.

Over the last six weeks, one particularly brazen author has put four separate titles in the Top 10, and Amazon did nothing whatsoever. There are many such examples.

I wrote at the start of June about how scammers were taking over Amazon’s free charts. That post led to a phone conversation with KDP’s Executive Customer Relations.

Repeated assurances were given that the entire leadership team at Amazon was taking the scammer problem very seriously indeed. But it was also stressed that the…

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Every writer’s rabbit hole.

Research, ah, research. If historical personages had not lived such fascinating lives and if writers did not write so fascinatingly about them, I would be far more productive. To wit, an illustration from What Life Was Like on the Banks of the Nile (Time-Life Books, 1996).

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I don’t know that I would have fit right in but for sure as a woman I would have been a lot more comfortable in Egypt than I would have been in Rome, where women stayed home with the spinning, couldn’t pick their own husbands, couldn’t divorce, didn’t get the children if the husband up and left, didn’t receive alimony, and couldn’t own or operate their own businesses. In Egypt, a woman of that time could do all those things, and more.

My hero, Tetisheri? Well, let’s just say she does more.

 

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“There’s America, there’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.”

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“In twenty-two years,” Grant writes, “I had changed my address eighteen times.” A peripatetic writer whose job had taken him from East Africa to the Sierra Madre, his Manhattan pied-à-terre has become a little claustrophobic, not just to him but to his girlfriend Mariah and his dog Savanna.

So when he goes to Mississippi to visit his cookbook author friend Martha Fosse, and she shows him her ancestral home, a plantation house on five acres that her father wants to sell, he decides to relocate in the land of the blues, of which Lyndon Johnson famously said

“There’s America, there’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.”

and of which Grant writes in the prologue, never mind the first chapter

Drugs, religion, and welfare appeared to be the cornerstones of the local economy.

So he knows what he’s getting into, which doesn’t mean the revelations about this dysfunctional corner of the world don’t follow thick and fast.

Buying a gun was so much easier than getting a Mississippi driver’s license.

“The kids who live here have never seen one thing built,” said Martha. “They can’t imagine building something themselves, or someone else building it for them. When you grow up in the Delta, everything around you is falling in, and emptying out, and it really affects you. America isn’t supposed to be this way.”

In both Greenwood and Yazoo City, the public schools had received an F grade from the state education department, and in both places school administrators and community leaders had come up with the same solution: a big prayer rally, and no other changes in policy or personnel. Praying was also a way of doing nothing.

On eating the product of the first hunt either of them had ever been on:

The meat wasn’t gamy at all. It was rich and delicate and exquisitely delicious. The doe had fed to her heart’s content on clover, henbit, acorns, wild plums, corn, soybeans, and grasses. She had led an incomparably better life than any factory-farmed animal, and now she had become meat…If she had reached old age, her teeth would have worn away, and she would have starved to death. Coyotes and vultures would have eaten her. Instead she died instantly, provided us with meat for the next nine months, and one meal that we’d never forget.

There is, as anyone who has ever met anyone from the Deep South might expect, some great storytelling.

“It was a bunch of big ole young guys around a card table, and they were drunk, and starting to square off, and you could see what was about to happen. So Will Jones, who was on the other side of the room, picked up the hindquarters of a deer, which happened to be there cause it was hunting season, and man, he launched that thang. You could see the fat glisten as it grazed past the light fixture, and BAM! Here it lands, right on the card table. It totally defused the situation. I mean it just changed the whole damn subject. Hindquarters landing on a card table will do that every time.”

And then there is race and its perpetual hangover suffered by everyone of every color in the Delta.

“Why can’t they get their act together? When are they going to get it together? When are they going to quit hollering racism and get on with it?” We heard these sentiments often from Delta whites. It was a denial of the idea that the past affects the present, that systemic oppression can damage a people. After 250 years of slavery, 90 years of plantation sharecropping and Jim Crow, and 50 years more of unequal opportunity, deep poverty, and very slowly diminishing racism, black folks were expected to shake all that off like it was nothing and be grateful for their civil rights.

The first black man Grant meets after a year still won’t come into Grant’s house, or even up on his porch, and won’t meet his eyes.

This is a terrific book, a history lesson, a journey through a different kind of Oz, a word picture of a world most of us will never personally experience, and with way too many close encounters with cottonmouths. There is almost as much wildlife in the Delta as there is in Alaska, and a lot of it every bit as deadly. Highly recommended.

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The Ultimate Pagan Festival

The whole experience was so famously uncomfortable that a master once threatened his disobedient slave with a visit to the Olympic Games.

Unless you’re Mitt Romney, I’m not sure that threat would work today. Let the Games begin!

And begin them here, with Tony Perrottet’s hilarious history, which will among other things make you wonder what all the fuss is about women Olympians’ uniforms. The heck with skirts on female boxers, let them just wale away at each other in the nude.

The original Games, writes Perrottet, were held under the terms of the sacred Olympic Truce:

This Olympic Truce was one of the ancient world’s most extraordinary traditions. It imposed an armistice across the land–an almost enchanted ban on the Greeks’ incessant feuding–whose terms were enforced by Zeus himself. During this sacred peace, no military attacks could be made, no judicial cases conducted, nor death penalties carried out…Its terms had originally been defined in 776 B.C. for the first Games and inscribed in concentric circles onto a hefty golden discus, which still hung in pride of place in the Temple of Hera at Olympia. And despite some notorious exceptions, the truce was honored.

In the “Countdown” chapter Perrottet goes into fascinating detail about the labor and expense of hosting a Games 2700 years ago. One example, translated into 2004 USD: Digging and rolling the practice running track in the Gymnasium: $814 (Paid to Agazalos). I think Agazalos stuck it to the organizers, a practice that continues to this day.

Then there was the Olympic boot camp, which trained such luminaries as

Theagenes of Thasos was revealed as Olympic material at age nine, when he heaved a giant bronze statue in the village market onto his shoulder and carried it off. Instead of having the boy executed for impiety, the village elders sent their superboy off to wrestling school.

Those little girl gymnasts don’t look so young now, do they?

The association of spectator sport with heavy drinking has a long pedigree, writes Perrottet. Greek wine aficionados could be encouraged by the teachings of a doctor named Mnesitheus, who argued that binge drinking had positive, purgative effects on health. He helpfully suggested how to avoid vicious hangovers: Don’t drink bad wine, don’t eat dried fruit or nuts, and don’t go to sleep until you have vomited.

London Olympics fans, take note.

There is a whole chapter on the chariot races, which allowed women to circumvent the ban on their participation in the Olympics. This feminist breakthrough was made by a Spartan princess named Cynisca, who won with her chariots twice, in 396 and 392 B.C. She erected a lavish memorial thanking Zeus for her triumphs; in the centuries that followed, other brash noblewomen followed her example. I think we ought to bring back the chariot races, myself.

There is something delightful and informative on every page of this wonderful little history. And it’s available on Kindle.