Turkey Tale

Last week, National Geographic published a timely article; timely, because of the date—close to Thanksgiving—and the topic—turkeys. Once, wild gobblers were plentiful throughout this country. However, by the Civil War, their numbers were decimated because of excessive hunting and loss of forest habitat.

This drastic decline led a New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife biologist to reintroduce 25 birds in 1975. Expecting at most a few thousand turkeys to descend from them, he has watched their numbers to explode to 40,000. With neighboring states boasting similar population increases, wild turkey introduction has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

The birds themselves are largely to be thanked for the population explosion: they can live almost anywhere and thrive near human habitations. People who keep feeders well stocked with birdseed for their hoped-for avian visitors (of whom turkeys are almost certainly not on the expected guest list) provide a ready source of nourishment. Add to these factors a dearth of traditional predators like wolves and cougars, and the stage is set for one of the most fruitful wildlife reintroduction events in the nation’s history.

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Turkey Crossing Guard

Actually, the unfortunate disappearance of wolves and cougars from their ancestral habitats brings to mind two other wildly successful reintroductions. Naturally, I learned of them through books chronicling the (largely man-made) decline of these magnificent apex predators and the often hindered efforts to restore them to their proper place.

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Back in the late 1890s, Yellowstone National Park’s powers that be believed predators would decimate elk and bighorn sheep—animals which brought visitors in droves. These officials saw one solution: entirely eliminate wolves, a goal which was achieved by the mid-1920s. However, the plan backfired, as the population boom in prey animals wreaked havoc on their populations as well as those of other Yellowstone critters. To remedy this situation, wildlife officials—after hearing from proponents and opponents of the plan—okayed the release of 32 Canadian wolves in 1995 and 1996.

By 2009, under the watchful eyes of biologists, park rangers, amateur wolf watchers, and a filmmaker, 1700 wolves belonging to numerous packs called the northern Rocky Mountains home. Now the challenges became ensuring that the big canines remain protected and convincing elk hunters that wolves are not responsible for the reduction in numbers of their quarry.

Nate Blakeslee’s story of the return of wolves to Yellowstone is as captivating as a great novel. The author’s admiration for these smart, devoted, social creatures is obvious; yet it does not prevent him from open-mindedly presenting all sides of the restoration question. Blakeslee has a gift of combining a historian’s detachment with an advocate’s passion about the subject. Readers interested in environmental issues, social concerns, wildlife, and history will want to add this account to their shelves. It’s vital reading for anyone preparing for or following a career in biology, wildlife management, the national park system, or social concerns. Even people who have not given wolves much thought might find themselves aficionados by the time they finish American Wolf.

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Now it’s the big cat’s turn. In a book scheduled for publication in January, 2020, Craig Pittman introduces us to the puma, aka cougar, mountain lion, tiger, catamount, and panther. Like all apex predators, these cats are necessary for a viable ecosystem. And like wolves, puma subspecies once thrived in varied regions of the U.S. yet fell victim to people’s fears for their safety and their livestock.

Today, cats live in only one state east of the Mississippi: Florida, where they are known as panthers. Even there, their survival has been endangered by fear, loss of habitat due to development, highway expansion, corporate greed, and–amazingly–government  wildlife officials bowing to lobbyists and undermining their staffs’ recommendations for panther protection. By the time they began to actively improve the cat’s lot in the 1960s, biologists and veterinarians faced the grim possibility that there were no panthers left outside of the Everglades. It has taken a diversified cast of characters, some with their own agendas yet united by one goal, to stand up to all opposition and ensure a future for Florida’s state animal.

Craig Pittman, a not-so-secret admirer of panthers, uses his journalistic talents to tell their story with a blend of humor, passion, irony, and objectivity. He brings the hopes, plans, and schemes of heroes and villains alike to life. Readers feel the dreams, exhilaration, outrage, and frustrations of those who have devoted their careers and lives to ensuring that America’s cat overcomes its challenges and be a source of enjoyment and admiration for generations to come.

During and after reading these heartwarming tales, I began to think about my affinity for creatures of all kinds. What makes a woman entering—and now in—her golden years feel for the plight and express concern for the future of wildlife? True, there have been remarkable women like Marjory Stoneman Douglas (the author of Everglades: River of Grass) who became a panther advocate in her late 70s and spent the next thirty years actively working to preserve the environment. Yet I have not extensively researched or written anything on this topic or worked in a professional or even amateur capacity to protect our planet and its inhabitants.

The answer has to be my religious tradition. Judaism places a premium on animal protection; teachings are full of rules governing treatment of our feathery and furry friends and the avoidance of physical and emotional cruelty. In fact, the guidelines all people are expected to live by (the seven Noahide laws) stress the importance of this idea. And the reward is great for one who sends away a mother bird so she will not suffer the anguish of seeing a person take her young. In addition, we are enjoined to emulate the positive characteristics of various creatures (the strength of a lion, for one) in service of our Creator. There are so many more examples of the proper and requisite attitude we must have towards the animals with which we share this world; to enumerate them all would fill volumes. Yet it can be summed up in a nutshell: Judaism is a compassionate way of life whose emphasis on kindness extends to all the inhabitants of planet Earth, animal and human alike.

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I’ve Come Back

Time flies! Is it really a year and a half since I posted a review? Since there is (no surprise there) a book waiting for me to share, here is something that is long overdue. This drop-everything-and-read title is The Blink of an Eye: a Memoir of Dying—and Learning How to Live Again by Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard.

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Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard plays many roles: she is an accomplished scientist; the devoted and beloved wife of Peter Kjaergaard, the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s director and a university professor; and the loving mother of 18-year-old Johan, 14-year-old Victoria, and eight-year-old Daniel. Blessed with a family who taught her to believe in herself and a husband who shares the sentiment, Rikke spent a year completing work on a Ph.D. while Peter took on the role of both parents. The couple’s work took them to two Cambridges—England and Massachusetts—and California. Rikke, with her love of travel, felt at home in all of these places while remaining proud of her Danish heritage.

As Rikke’s incredible story opens, the family lives in a large town in Denmark. On the last evening of 2012, the Kjaergaards host a party for some friends. Ever optimistic and looking ahead, Rikke enjoys the beginning of every new year. (Even becoming seriously ill with a chronic condition—systemic lupus erythmatosis—at age 20 did not put a damper on her spirits or her determination to live life to the fullest.) On January 1, the parents, their children, and a friend of Peter’s take a walk along a river near their home. As the others go ahead, Rikke begins to feel chilled and too weak to keep up. She puts it down to being tired after their late-night gathering. However, nothing works to keep her warm, and a fever and unpleasant symptoms develop. The Tamiflu prescribed by a doctor and a penicillin injection do not help.

By the time paramedics take Rikke to the hospital, she has deteriorated—and goes into cardiac arrest. The first responders restart her heart, but Rikke’s body is failing. At the hospital, doctors reach a diagnosis: pneumococcal menginitis, an illness usually stopped in its tracks by the spleen with no more serious symptoms than those resembling a mild cold. However, a scan reveals only the remains of this organ. With nothing to trap the bacteria, Rikke’s body is easy prey.

When the dangerously ill patient begins to awaken from a coma, she discovers that the disease has left her with severe brain damage, no short-term memory, and the ability to move only her eyes. Rikke and Peter quickly devise a system of blinking to answer questions and spell out words. Her innate determination comes to the fore, and—with the help of her family and dedicated medical professionals—she begins the long journey back to the land of the living. Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges they present, even naysaying practitioners cannot deflect Rikke from her goal: to return home and resume her place as wife, mother, and productive member of society. As her rehabilitation commences, she sums it up: “Now more than anything, I wanted to be with my children, to talk to them, answer them, play with them, walk with them, eat with them, read to them. To be their mother again. My dreams soared.”

Author Rikke Schmidt Kjaergaard tells her extraordinary story with the craft of a novelist. The horror of awakening with no control over most of her body and the other devastating effects of the disease are described with the precision of the scientist. Yet, the reader is privy to the thoughts, fears, and frustration that plague the patient.  Rikke’s heroic efforts to prove to herself and those around her that an intelligent, capable, feeling human being resides within her damaged body and brain are nothing short of inspiring. People following her story feel like front-row observers as they share the disappointments and rejoice at the triumphs, large and small, that mark the patient’s journey. Rikke has the gift of relating all the details of her experience—even the most disturbing—in language that neither sugar-coats nor appalls. As such, this heartfelt and heartwarming memoir is an appropriate read for young teens and adults alike.

The Recipe Box Revisited

In my previous post, I talked about a soon-to-be-published novel that had me mesmerized from page one. Now that I’ve completed my official review, I would like to share it with my patient readers. (As mentioned, this review is double the length of most that come out of my [virtual] pen.)

Readers are in for a literal and literary treat.

Viola Shipman’s delectable story opens in the fall of 1939. Alice Mullins looks out the window of her northern Michigan farmhouse to see her husband, Leo, and their dog Mac approach from the orchard. Alice decides to make something special for Leo with the apples he brings her. While the apple crisp bakes, she writes down the oft-used recipe for the first time. A few days later, Leo presents his wife with a handmade locked recipe box. For the next several weeks, Alice writes down every recipe she can think of—and keeps the key on a chain around her neck.

Fast forward to 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, has left home to follow her dream: attend culinary school and work in New York City. The twenty-four-year-old is a pastry chef on a reality TV show hosted by “Chef Dimples,” a pompous man with no culinary skills who relies on his staff’s creations. On a dreary summer morning, Sam arrives at work at the same time as Angelo Morelli, a young man delivering fruit to the bakery. After Angelo expresses his appreciation to the young woman for encouraging him to attend college, the two enter the premises—only to discover that Trish, another chef, has quit rather than continue working for their unscrupulous, callous boss. When Chef Dimples arrives, he orders Sam (in the absence of a “real” pastry chef) to make a pie for the show, which is being featured on Good Morning America.

In the first of many perfectly-placed flashbacks, we meet Sam on her 13th birthday. Disgruntled about having to spend another summer on the Mullins Family Orchard, picking fruit and greeting guests, she shares her desire to see the world beyond northern Michigan with her grandmother Willo and mother Deana. That evening, the new teen is introduced to two family traditions: her own recipe box and key, complete with recipes written over the generations, and a baking session. As grandmother, mother, and granddaughter prepare Sam’s first peach-blueberry slab pie, Willo tells her to make it whenever she wants a “taste of home and family” and to demonstrate that appearances are not what matters; what’s inside is what counts.

Back in the present, Sam recalls her grandmother’s words as she fingers the recipe box key worn on a chain—and bakes the unattractive but delicious peach-blueberry slab pie. Despite the fact that her boss obviously enjoys the pastry, he acts true to form. Chef Dimples throws it into the garbage, ordering Sam to bake a real pie. She has had enough: she quits.

Confused and unhappy, Sam flies back to Michigan, feeling like she is returning with her tail between her legs. Even though she keeps her recent experience a secret, her grandmother and parents sense there is something Sam is hiding—and find opportunities to talk about their own life events. Hearing how a young Willo sought out a deserted spot to rethink her life and whether what others expected of her was what she wanted for herself; the chance her recently-married father had to follow what he thought was his dream until a simple event opened his eyes; and the memory of a story about a teenage Deana’s experiences that mirrored her own all shed new light on Sam’s perception of reality.

However, before Sam has an opportunity to come to terms with everything, she receives two calls: one about a promising job opportunity in New York, and the second from Angelo—who drops the bombshell that he is coming to Michigan. Now Sam—with a little help from family and friends—must discover where her path lies.

Viola Shipman’s heartwarming novel is like a breath of fresh Michigan air. While there are many quality works of fiction published every year, one that tells a memorable story and is free of strong language, sex, and violence is a rarity. From the moment readers meet the scions of the Mullins family and those who carry on their legacy, they are hooked. All the people in Sam’s world—past and present—are believable. The author paints such a vivid picture of the settings, whether crowded Manhattan streets or secluded Lake Michigan beach, the reader can visualize the rain-dampened pavement and see and smell a dew-laden orchard at sunrise. Each chapter centers around a deliciously appropriate dessert, complete with a recipe at its end.

Shipman’s gift of language is nothing short of amazing: “The lake extended as far as Willo could see—a watery blue fabric that moved in the wind, the lighthouse watching over everything.” “Sam expected to smell the spices from the Indian restaurant, Naan Better, that occupied the ground floor of her Brooklyn apartment building and to see a brick wall across the narrow street that served as a sort of Broadway backdrop to the choreographed chaos of the city streets that greeted her every morning: people scurrying to work, cab horns blaring, sirens whirring, a world of music echoing up to her.”

By the time readers reach the end of this achingly lovely tale, they are certain to have a new favorite literary heroine (or two or three). It should not come as a surprise if, like this reviewer, readers find themselves returning to the beginning and treating themselves to a second helping.

Now that I’ve delighted in this gem twice, I am looking forward to checking out Viola Shipman’s earlier novels.

A Story As Sweet As Pie

I think I might have just read the book of the year.

Several years ago, I joined netgalley.com, a source of about-to-be-published books available for review. The titles I’ve chosen to read range from so-so to exceptional. When, earlier this winter, a book caught my attention, I jumped at the chance to request it.

The title of this gem is The Recipe Box by Viola Shipman. The author is relatively new to the scene; her first novel, The Charm Bracelet, was published in 2016.

After I finished reading the story, I returned to the beginning for the purpose of taking notes for my review. However, the tale drew me in–and I found myself rereading the novel. When, midway through the second reading, I felt it was time to write the review already, I did so (while continuing to read). By the time my thoughts on The Recipe Box were complete, the review was a whopping 900 words–more than double my normal length. (And that is without giving away the glorious ending!) I’ve reread the review several times, but I cannot bring myself to cut more than a few words here and there.

But I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. Even though I cannot include the review here (at least until I submit it to Netgalley close to the publication date), here is a sample.

In 1939, Alice Mullins looks out the window of her farmhouse as husband Leo and their dog return from the orchard. When they enter with a basket of apples, she decides to make an apple crisp; and, on a whim, writes down the often-used recipe for the first time. When, several days later, Leo presents her with a locked homemade recipe box, Alice puts the key on a chain around her neck, writes all the recipes she can think of, and begins a family tradition.

The year is now 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, is following her dream of working as a pastry chef in New York City. Her boss is the famous “Chef Dimples,” a pompous, callous man with a reality TV show. However, he has never baked a thing in his life; his bakery is full of the creations of his staff. When pastry chef Trish quits because of her employer’s attitude, Sam is under orders to bake a pie because Good Morning America is featuring Chef Dimples.

Remembering her official introduction to the world of baking on her 13th birthday, the young woman fingers her own recipe box key on a chain and decides to make the unattractive but surprisingly delicious peach-blueberry slab pie.  Recalling grandmother Willo’s advice to bake it whenever she wants to demonstrate the fact that appearances are not important, and what is inside is all that matters, Sam puts together the pastry. She watches with satisfaction as her boss and two others react positively to the finished product. Yet, Chef Dimples quickly reverts to his true form and dumps the slab pie into the garbage. Infuriated, Sam becomes the second pastry chef in a day to walk out.

A confused Sam returns home to northern Michigan (feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs), but does not tell anyone what happened. However, her wise yet young-at-heart grandmother, along with mother Deana and father Greg, understand that Sam is hiding something. Rather than pressure the young woman, they tell stories about their own experiences. These tales, presented as a series of flashbacks, and the loving concern of their tellers finally convince a distraught Sam to tell the truth.

Sam’s journey of discovery is the stuff of memorable novels. Her story, masterfully told by an author who tells this powerful yet lovely multigenerational gem with simplicity and grace, is refreshingly free of sex and strong language–unusual for a modern novel written for teens and adults. The Recipe Box is scheduled for publication on March 20, 2018. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and treat yourself to the delectable story of Sam and her family.

Let me know if you think 900 words are too many to describe this magnificent book.

 

The Big 65

I’ve made it. Yesterday was the birthday marking a milestone–reaching 65 years of age. (It was actually a double. Observant Jews observe their birthdays according to the date on the Hebrew calendar. This year, both Jewish and secular dates came out on the same day. How often does that happen?) Since I now qualify for Medicare (and have already put the plan to use) and reduced fares on New York City subways and buses, it must mean I am officially a senior citizen.

My body has been telling me for some time that I am not as young as I used to be. Whereas a few years ago, we could take long walks and navigate uneven and hilly country terrain, such activities are now challenging. Vacations are as much for relaxing at the hotel as exploring the local attractions.

Yet there are perks beyond assistance with health insurance and half-priced transit fares. We no longer feel the pressure to take part in activities that we do not feel up to. And there is a marvelous bonus: grandchildren! Nothing beats the enjoyment of cuddling an offspring’s infant, reading one story after another that a two-year-old keeps bringing, or watching a video of a not-yet-literate youngster “reading” a book from start to finish without missing a word.

You might have noticed that two of the above examples involve one of my favorite pastimes. And since reading is a pleasure that being elderly has not diminished, I naturally think of several books that touch on the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

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For starters, there is the delightful Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie by Laurie Jacobs. When their parents go out for the evening and Grandma comes to babysit, Sophie and Chloe know that the fun is about to begin. Grandma Tillie has a way of disappearing as a remarkable character shows up. For example, there’s Chef Silly Tillie and her menu of hilariously delectable treats. The fun doesn’t stop until the youngsters are asleep–dreaming, I would think, of the next time Grandma Tillie comes to babysit.

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On a more serious note, Getting to Know Ruben Plotnick by Roz Rosenbluth is an unforgettable tale of friendship, first impressions (which do not always tell the whole story), and family relationships. David has mixed feelings when exuberant Ruben Plotnick wants to come over to do homework. He’s excited that the most fun kid in the class is interested in him–and nervous about what Ruben will think of his increasingly senile grandmother. David in in for a pleasant surprise when the two meet.

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Grandpa for Sale by Dotti Enderle opens with 11-year-old Lizzie taking care of her grandfather’s antique store while he takes a nap on a sofa. When wealthy Mrs. Larchmont enters the establishment and decides there is only one thing she wants–Grandpa–and offers an exorbitant sum for him, Lizzie thinks of all the things she could do with the money. Yet would any of them be any fun without Grandpa to enjoy them with?

(I realized that all these books were published by the phenomenal Flashlight Press. I have no official relationship with the publisher!)

As the stories illustrate, grandparenthood is not something that happens as we approach the sunset years. It’s the beginning of a new, exciting chapter in our lives.

 

It’s That Time–Again

Time has a way of moving quickly. It seems like it was just last week, or last month, or even last year. When I read the last article I posted on this blog (eleven months ago!), it felt like something newly written. And how could it snow when my summer clothes are yet residing in closet and dresser? After I dug out my boots and fleece tights, it seemed like only yesterday that I wore them.

Maybe the sensation that time is passing quickly–too quickly–is a product of age. After all, next month (thank G-d) I reach the big 65 and join the ranks of those on Medicare. (Social Security payments are already partially replacing the income lost when my job of twenty-four years was eliminated. But that’s another story.)

With time galloping like champion race horses, I have the feeling of being left in the dust at the starting gate. When the question pops into my head as to what I really accomplish, the answer all too often is “not much.”

So, when family members began looking forward to and making plans for Chanukah, I decided to ignore the feeling that we had just celebrated the festival–and tackle something that’s been on my to-do list for some time.

Some years ago, our eldest son gave us a large and lovely menorah–the candelabra used to kindle the festival lights. To our offspring’s disappointment, my husband preferred to use another one. The menorah was put aside and gradually lost its shine as tarnish took over. The situation was such that an earlier attempt at restoring its luster was unsuccessful.

This week, hours before the commencement of the holiday, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the blackened menorah. To my delight, after a half hour of applying liberal amounts of polish and determined rubbing, the tarnish (mostly) gave way to shine. This was, I thought, a labor of love; I did not expect my husband to actually use our son’s menorah. Perhaps realizing how much work went into restoring the menorah, my better half surprised and pleased me by choosing to light it this year.

This small success got me thinking. After all, wasn’t the miracle brought about by an inspired group who believed in their cause? The philosophy-loving Greek occupiers of the Holy Land had no problem with Jewish teachings as long as the will of the Creator was not part of the equation. This situation was unacceptable to the members of the above-mentioned group. So, with a rallying cry calling to those who were for G-d, a small fighting force met and faced down the mighty Greek military machine. When the victors entered the Holy Temple,  they discovered all the oil used to light the menorah had been defiled by the pagans–except for one bottle.

The fact that one day’s supply burned for eight, which gave rise to the festival known as Chanukah (dedication), continues to inspire us today. And makes this member of our people realize that small actions–even those that do not seem significant–can have positive effects beyond anything believed possible.

 

The Lunar Chronicles: More Than Fairy Tales

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Five years ago, the first book in a promising new series appeared on the scene. As a librarian always on the lookout for eye-catching reads to share with my young patrons, I ordered the available titles. Since “reworked” fairy tales are popular with kids from beginning readers to teens, it was with anticipation that I began the first volume.

I was hooked. Even though Marissa Meyers is not the only author–or the first–to write a classic fairy tale with a twist, her series is something special. (An aside: In a post I wrote after reading the first three novels, I dubbed the series a mix between Star Wars and classic fairy tales.)

From the moment we meet Cinder (no surprise as to the identity of the original character), we know we are in for a treat. The traditional elements are there–a handsome prince, an evil stepmother, a ball–but the story takes off in a whole new direction. For Cinder is harboring a secret, and others are privy to important information of which our heroine is unaware. By the time I completed her story, I was more than ready to continue the saga.

Scarlet is a worthy successor to Cinder. We meet another fairy-tale character and follow her on a journey to rescue a beloved family member. While characters and events from the classic story are present, Scarlet and her friends (and enemies, and someone who might be both) are unique to this telling. In a stroke of literary genius, Cinder reappears, and her story intertwines with those of her new acquaintances.

And then comes Cress. The heroine, a teen who has spent her entire life in isolation while performing a service for the powers that be, finds a new purpose. When a daring rescue does not go as planned, Cress finds herself in the midst of an adventure beyond anything she could have imagined. When I reluctantly turned the last page, I knew that there would be a wait before the next installment arrived on store and library shelves–and turned my attention to other books to fill in the gaps.

This winter, after delighting in blockbusters like The Orphan Queen and its worthy sequel, I remembered Cinder and company. There were two new novels in the saga: the background story Fairest and Winter, the grand finale of the series.

Like her new friends, Winter is an easily recognized fairy-tale personality–yet there is a depth to the young woman not found in the original character. (And she makes her way in the world without the assistance of seven little men.) As the heroes and heroines endeavor to realize their goal against all odds, we thrill to their triumphs and feel their frustration when things go awry.

Marissa Meyer’s series deserves a place alongside the tales of Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, and other authors who have so successfully adapted traditional fantasies. Don’t take my word for it: if you or a teen in your life have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Cinder and friends, you’re in for a treat.

 

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