Just another kid in the newsroom

Chasing History: A Kid in the NewsroomChasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom by Carl Bernstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chasing History with Carl Bernstein is a remarkable journey back to the early 60s–the election and assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement and the optimistic beginnings of the Vietnam War — a time when newspapers were the trusted tellers of the tale. Long before Bernstein and his Washington Post co-worker Bob Woodward became famous for exposing the Watergate scandal, Carl was a cheeky teenage copy boy at the Washington Star, with phenomenal powers of observation, a note-taking obsession, and determination to be one of the last of the era to rise from copy boy to page one bylines without the benefit of a college degree.
I have to admit I am biased toward this story. Carl is just four years older than me and much of the business he describes is the world I remember in my early newspaper career. Smelly jars of rubber cement to slather on torn chunks of cheap copy paper when making additions or insertions in pre-computer editing. Linotype machines stamping out pieces of lead type, teletype machines chattering in the corner and dinging with news alerts. And a caring family of devoted reporters and editors working all hours for the stories, most of them idealistic to a fault.
Bernstein’s talent as a storyteller is unmatched. His telling of the assassination of JFK from the point of view of the reporters covering events swept me up so I could imagine being there instead of hearing the report in my high school choir class. He had me crying as if I were hearing about the tragedy for the first time.
Bernstein grew up in DC so he describes the city more as a hometown of friends and relatives instead of a bureaucratic, impersonal political capital. His perspective adds a dimension of soul to every event.
The main part of the book covers the years from 1960-1966 when Bernstein was working at the Washington Star while going to high school and college. It closes as he sells his car and heads off to a new job in New Jersey. In the postscript he tells about working in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, for a couple years before returning to D.C. to join the staff of Washington Post. He also updates the reader on the careers of several Washington Star co-workers who form the family of characters during his six years at The Star. The postscript gets a little tedious but it does answer a lot of potential I-wonder-what-happened-to questions.

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The mystery of the road not taken


The Other MeThe Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like a book with messages and this one delivers many. Everyone has wondered about the road not taken, what would life be like if you had married so-and-so or selected a different college, so the basic premise of Chicago artist Kelly who suddenly finds herself in a different life as small town Michigan wife with a wanna-be graphic design career, spotlights a lot of the what ifs. A man from her past who she could have loved. A better relationship with her parents. But it also gets into real life questions of how we manipulate each other. How mothers may steer daughters toward husbands and homes instead of careers, how men use dinner and gifts to bribe affection and then rely on that affection to build their own self-worth. Is it fair to change someone else’s life to improve your own? Do we actually know what is best for someone else? And as Kelly says she learned in art school: a failure isn’t the end it is the beginning, a lesson, the start of something new.
Technically this book is science fiction because it deals with time travel. I am not usually into science fiction but this one plays out more like a mystery because Kelly is trying to solve the mystery of how she has suddenly been pulled out of one life and into another. But as a mystery thriller fan I expect a lot of action. For me the first 90 percent of this book plods along, as Kelly goes along with her new life not making waves in case someone will say she is crazy, slowly unraveling rumors of some new AI ap at the local tech company, Gnii; overheard phone conversations, a mysterious thumb drive.
The climax is plenty exciting and fast-paced. When you think about it, however, a story about time travel is guaranteed to be happily ever after because if you don’t like the ending you just go back in time to fix it.

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Ban my books, please


     Every now and then society goes on a book-banning binge. 

      From Virginia to Washington State, Covid-weary conservatives are suddenly noticing books that have been on the school’s library shelves and required reading lists for years. They are offended by language, racial issues, LGBTQ characters and anything else that might upset their kids (who are too busy with violent video games and explicit television shows to notice.) 
       The effect of all this book-banning is the same as always: sales are skyrocketing. 
        Consider “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust in which Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis as cats. The work earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, but in 30 years its popularity has dimmed a little. No edition of the books was in Amazon’s top 1,000 a week ago. But after the book was banned by a Seattle-area school board, two editions jumped into the top 20 and one edition is sold out. 
        Demand is also up for Tony Morrison’s 1970 “The Bluest Eye” after a St. Louis area school banned it because of the racism and sexual abuse the main character endures. Even the 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” is once again facing protests that the racism depicted is just too hard for today’s kids. 
       There’s nothing new or unusual about protests being the best form of promotion. I remember a few years back when I was covering the play “Corpus Christi” in Grand Rapids. The show had to move to a larger venue and add performances after protestors complained Christ was being depicted as homosexual. 
       Maybe Jordan Daily News Mysteries could benefit from negative publicity. After all, my books have much of what these book banners detest. The collection of characters is diverse which naturally leads to some racial issues. One book has a gay character who actually kisses someone of the same sex on the lips. Oh, my. 
      The language might be considered offensive since one of the main characters has a habit of making up his own curse words. Sex is implied, though the dirty details are left to the imagination. And dealing with serious subjects such as a serial killer or a nuclear threat can be pretty stressful for readers. 
        So go ahead and ban my books. I can use the sales. 

Teen sleuth learns quickly

The Hidden Staircase (Nancy Drew, #2)The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second book in this classic mystery series kicks up the action and the stakes considerably over the first book. Nancy actually rescues her father and saves his life. She pieces away at the mystery in baby steps, always reporting every finding to the proper authorities and receiving their praise, so when she needs to ask for help from the authorities they are quick to respond. Nancy is investigating “ghostly” happenings at the home of a friend’s grandmother while her father is off in Chicago seeking a man believed to be involved in a land swindle. Mr. Drew is on his way to visit his daughter when he is kidnapped and Nancy soon figures out that the “ghost” is related to the land swindle. Secret passages, tunnels and trap doors give this story plenty of surprises, not to mention the usual hazards involved in an aging mansion. I am still surprised how good everyone is…the wary cooperate, the bad guys confess, and happily ever after is pretty much assured. On to book 3.

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How I Became a Mystery Writer

The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, #1)The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered Nancy Drew in the school library when I was in 6th grade. Before the year was out I had read every book my library had in the series. It inspired me to want to be a mystery writer, which I accomplished after a career in journalism. Recently I decided I wanted to reread the stories that started it all. About the only thing I remembered about Nancy Drew was that she had neat little sports car and her father was an attorney. Turns out that information is revealed on the first page of the first book so it didn’t take long for the stories to grab me. Rereading after all these years I am struck by how kind and gracious people are. Looking for information about a missing will Nancy calls on a woman in her 80s. Turns out the lady is recovering from a fall down the stairs. Although Nancy has just met her she quickly pitches in to bandage her up and make a grocery run and fix her some lunch. I wasn’t surprised that a protagonist would behave so nicely but what surprised me is when she left she went next door and informed the neighbor, who was a stranger as well, and that neighbor drops everything to take care of her injured neighbor including doing her laundry. There is just an underlying assumption that people will take care of each other that I don’t think today’s characters have. So I am on to Book 2 next.

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Making Stolen Manuscripts Interesting


Camino Island (Camino Island #1)Camino Island by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s be honest. The theft of original manuscripts, even those written by a famous author like F. Scott Fitzgerald, has the potential to be deadly dull. I mean the faded, barely legible handwritten pages are only of interest to academics and collectors; they are kept out of sight in a vault and if they burned up the world wouldn’t know or care that they were gone. But somehow Grisham manages to keep this tale interesting. Much of the credit goes to the setting, the titular island off the coast of Florida. It’s beautiful, with small town charm and lots of beautiful people leading exotic lives. Heading the pack is Bruce Cable, owner of the local bookstore, and his wife Noelle, who sells French antiques. They have an open marriage with lots of uncommitted “flings,” unlimited wealth of mysterious origin, and a beautiful Victorian mansion. Now throw in Mercer Mann who spent her childhood visiting her grandmother on the island and owns part interest in the deceased grandmother’s cottage there. Mercer is a promising author who can’t write the second book, supports herself teaching English and faces insurmountable student debt. She is recruited by an investigative team with all the gadgets of an international spy ring to return to the island and spy on Bruce, who the investigative team believes is in possession of 5 manuscripts which were stolen from Princeton a year earlier. It’s a convoluted tale but Grisham keeps it moving by stepping back outside the characters — omniscient voice they used to call it before that was banned — and simply summarizing the action. The book opens with the theft which has all the necessary detail but slam, bam it’s done and we are introduced to Bruce, given a quick summary of his life, how he ended up with the bookstore and his wife and the house. Then bam, we meet Mercer and the unbelievable investigative team and an island full of writers who know how to party. Oh yeah, the missing manuscripts get returned to Princeton in another slam bam just the details finale, but that is soooo not what the book is about.

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Happy New Year, I hope


 The first New Year’s Eve I remember I was 6 years old. I wondered what “New Year” meant and my mother explained as she put me to bed. “When you wake up,” she said, “it won’t be 1954 anymore.”

        There have been lots of memorable New Year’s celebrations from family parties where my father joined us on the floor playing “Twister” to a college party where someone went out to the porch and fired a shotgun as the ultimate noisemaker. Once I took my son skiing in Colorado for Christmas break. We were so tired we couldn’t stay up until midnight. I managed to see the ball drop in Times Square but with the difference in time zones it was only 10 p.m. in Colorado.
        Somewhere in my kitchen cabinets are a pair of champagne flutes with stems that spell out 2000. I bought them on a Christmas cruise, but I didn’t have time to use them to usher in the new millennium. There were so many fears that the new date would cause major computer glitches that the entire news staff was on duty that night just in case. It was probably the tamest New Year’s ever. 
         I have lots of New Year’s memories, but for some reason I can’t remember what I was doing two years ago on New Year’s Eve, a month or so before I heard the word Covid. And I don’t have many memories of last New Year’s Eve — days before “patriots” attacked the capitol of our own country. 
         I have given up on resolutions or New Year’s predictions. I have no concept of what tomorrow might bring. The only thing I know for sure, when I wake up it won’t be 1954 anymore.

Kitty Consent


    As a volunteer for Country Cat Lady, I’ve been sharing updates about my adventures socializing unfriendly cats. Earlier this summer, I told the tales of my first foster kitty, Laura, who has since been placed in a forever home where she is reportedly doing very well. My second kitty Moana has been with me six weeks. Progress is slow, but rewarding. 

         Having learned my lesson from Laura,  I blocked the hiding place behind the file cabinet. I thought if I could reach Moana we could become friends more easily.  But as soon as I would reach out a hand toward her,  Moana would run away so haphazardly that I feared for her safety as well as mine. I decided to stop trying to pet her. If I have a right to deny someone’s touch,  doesn’t Moana deserve the same right of consent?
          So even though we hadn’t made friends, I decided after three weeks to let Moana out of the office to roam our house. She hid under the bed a lot at first, then at night she would explore the house playing with yarn balls in the living room. Surprisingly, I never found her getting up on any furniture.  She would hide under the sofa and watch me watch TV but never get up on the sofa or my bed.
          After a while, Moana no longer seemed to feel the need to hide. She would spend her days on the bedroom floor in front of my sliding door and watch the birds on the deck. She would curl up on the carpet next to my abandoned shoes and play with the dangling laces.  But occasional attempts to touch her were still shunned. 
          She started following me to the bathroom first thing in the morning, but she would always stay out of reach. She was clearly trying to communicate with me. She would rub against the door frames and furniture but if I responded by reaching out, she would run. 
          The other morning we were chatting in the bathroom. She was just out of reach, rubbing against the wall, but she had a thoughtful look in her eyes. Slowly she stepped closer, rubbed against my leg cautiously, and then ran back to the wall. She repeated the move and I told her how nice it felt for her to rub my leg. The third time she rubbed my leg I responded by scratching her head and she seemed to accept my touch. She didn’t linger but she didn’t run either.   
          This is our dance of detent. Little moves on each side, closer and closer, until trust is built. 

A yarn about a cat


Yesterday Moana marked two weeks living in my office. She’s watched me clean out files and use the printer. She’s turned down every tasty bribe I’ve tried…chicken strips, crisp bacon,  flaked salmon from Lake Michigan. And she bounces around the room like a ping pong ball if I make a move to touch her. 

       I’ve managed a few pets, but strokes are usually met with hisses and growls. It’s the streaking away and bouncing off walls and furniture that’s really concerning. Usually I just talk to her.
      She will only eat plain dry cat food. She’s pretty clear on that. An automatic feeder in the corner and a giant water bowl take care of all her needs. What does she need me for?
      The first positive sign came a few days ago. When I came in for my morning visit I discovered a yarn  ball I left a week before had been politely unraveled, not wrapped around chair legs or strewn from chair to desk but just nicely unrolled in the middle of the room. Yet, this was proof positive. She can play. I rewrapped that one and added two more, which remained untouched on the floor for two days. 
       Since I can’t get her to beg for treats, I decided to go more basic. Yesterday I removed the automatic feeder and left the room without food for a few hours. Then before bed I brought in a small dish of dry food and a new small water dish. Maybe she will start to see me as the good guy.
       An hour or so later I heard sounds coming from the office. Maybe she was batting around a plastic cap. And a bit more noise. Maybe the office chair rolling around. 
        When I went in this morning her food dish was empty. The blue yarn ball was completely undone, wrapped around a chair leg,  through the legs of a stool and wandering under the desk. 
        I think she’s getting the idea.

Meet Moana


       If you are a Disney fan you may already know the animated Moana, a 2016 movie about a Polynesian lass who ventures beyond the reef surrounding her home island to meet legendary characters. This Moana — a shy cat with hair as black as any Polynesian — is also on an adventure beyond her “reef.”

       About a week ago I bid farewell to my first foster cat, Laura, as she moved into her forever home. A couple days later I picked up Moana to be my second foster friend. She and a box of six kittens were abandoned in Grand Rapids. They were taken in by Country Cat Lady, a shelter in Wayland. She is believed to be four or five years old and very afraid of humans. 
          She’s back in my home office where Laura started. I’ve blocked off the hidey hole behind the file cabinet so Moana has to hide in slightly more accessible spaces. But if she can’t hide, she runs. Anytime I get close she streaks across the room. I have managed to pet her head a few times but usually she responds with hisses. It’s only been three days. I’ll let you know how she’s doing in a week or so. 
          Wish me luck.