Saturday, March 2, 2019

Loose Saturday Morning Musings

Wishful thinking: where is the sun?
Some loose thoughts this gray, gloomy, not-yet-Spring morning:

On sunshine:  Sun?  What is that?  It's been cloudy and damp as long as I can remember.  I need sun. I'm tired of gloomy, gray days.  So there.

On writing:  Blogging has been rather slow here as I've been involved in research and in writing on book two. Plus, it's been gray and gloomy and there has not much I felt like blogging about. I'm so over politics these days -- I doubt I'll ever return to full time political blogging. I'm super excited about my new book project, however, and am looking forward to sharing it with you, but not quite yet. Patience.

On reading: I've been reading a lot of research material for the new book, but I also have to have my pleasure reading. I am currently reading The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros, which Steve picked up at the Louisiana Book Festival last fall.  It's a stunning book and I can't recommend it enough, especially if you're from NOLA or Louisiana. I'll post a full review when I've finished but man, it's a truly beautiful book. Check it out.

On school:  Another reason for slow blogging. This semester has been a challenging one and I'm only halfway through the semester. I take seriously my responsibility to teach my students and prepare them for those end of the year tests, even when those students don't always fully realize the importance of those tests. Most days I feel like I've had rocks thrown at me all day and I'm exhausted,  sometimes in tears, but this is part of it. And it's why I love my job: we will all get there together and we will be successful. It's a challenge every single day, but one so very much worth taking.

On thank-you notes:  I received the loveliest thank-you note yesterday from the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), thanking me for speaking at their banquet last month, when in truth, I'm the one thanking them. I love sharing the Cane River Bohemia story with groups and I'm so grateful that they like my book. Thank you notes are too often an overlooked touch, I think. My mama drilled me about writing them when I was young and I still do it. There is something special about the fact that someone took the time to hand write a note, put a stamp on it, and mail it. My APHN note is on lovely creme colored stationery with the APHN monogram and the handwriting is beautiful cursive writing with a personal, lovely message. I will keep it forever and plan to put it in my Cane River Bohemia scrapbook that I'm going to start on this summer.

On the calendar:  With the approach of spring there are some exciting events coming up. I'm headed to Baton Rouge in a couple of weeks to talk about Cane River Bohemia with the members of the Baton Rouge Country Club Book Club.  In April I will be speaking with the North Louisiana Historical Association at their annual banquet in Natchitoches. I'm very excited about both of these invitations! The Baton Rouge event gives me an opportunity to head back down south and I could not be more excited about that. We're going to head over to New Iberia, St. Martinville, and Arnaudville and hit some of our favorite spots.  Also in April is the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival and while I am only going as a book lover and not an author, I can't wait to get back to New Iberia and see friends, listen to Cajun music, and take part in the joie de vivre that is so much a part of that area. I need the break.

On baseball:  Bring it.  I'm ready. And leave the damn pitch clock in spring training - quit messing with the game!

On crawfish: I need some. I don't want to pay $7.00 a pound for them. I must wait.

Since it appears the sun will not come out today I'm going to settle in and get some work done today. I hope the sun is shining where you are and that you have warm, bright days.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

Remembering Braveheart: 2013-2019

Last week I was scrolling through Facebook when Braveheart's page popped up on my feed. "This is a post I hoped I would never have to write."  My heart sank. A fear-adrenaline rush. I knew without reading any further what I was about to see.  Brave is gone.  All I could think was "No!"  Wednesday, January 23, 2019.


In 2013, we all fell in love with a dog.  Some 24,000 of us, judging by Brave's Facebook page.  But this was never, ever "just a dog."  You all know Brave's story; he was discovered near death in a storage facility in the sweltering Louisiana summer heat in 2013. His abuser went to trial in 2015My blog post about the trial received more hits than anything I ever posted.  It was also one of the longest posts I ever ran and I typed it straight through as soon as I got home from the trial, after the verdict.


By Monday Loraine reaches out to me: "Can you call me?"  Of course. "Bo wants you to write an obituary for Brave."  My heart sank. There was never any question that I would do it, but the thought of all the tears I would shed as I did was daunting.  "He's going to owe me. At least a six-pack." No problem."


There are people I have known that I did not cry over as much as I have this dog.  #truth


Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery near Elm Grove is a really pretty spot situated on the two-lane blacktop among the hardwoods.  Jaci and Kenneth are doing God's work there and seem perfectly suited to it. They are gracious and kind people. Jaci looks you in the eye when she talks to you and puts you immediately at ease. In black pants and navy top today, long hair flowing down her back, she welcomed guests with a bright smile as soon as they arrived while Kenneth directed parking for the large crowd.  There is a semi-covered pavilion area with wicker seating and benches. Vines are trailing up the wooden posts and eventually will form a cover over the arbor type covering.


A long table is covered with an orange cloth. Orange is the color animal lovers wear to protest cruelty to animals. During the trial lots of us wore orange because we weren't allowed to wear our Team Braveheart shirts.  On this table today there was a jar of dog treats, color photographs of Braveheart both alone and with his friends. A guest register. A program. A plexiglass stand with a carved rosewood box.  Braveheart.


A guest is spreading orange roses on the table.  "Please take one when the service is over," she said.  "I wish I had bought more. This is all they had." Jaci helps arrange them.  They are lovely.


Justin Thomas with Lumberjack Rescue is there with Clarence.  It might be hard to find a more sentimental dog lover than Justin. I think he's a hero; rescue is such demanding work and Justin has a big job in Springhill where abandoned animals seem to be so prevalent. Justin rails on his Facebook page about animal cruelty and wears his frustrations on his sleeve but this is why we love him. He says what we all feel and his heart is bigger than anyone I know.  Clarence is as happy a dog as you can imagine and he loves his human unconditionally.  That's obvious.


More dogs. Two precious Boston Terriers.  Chihuahuas.  A Yorkie.  Braveheart had friends everywhere.


I see Anita and have to go introduce myself.  I'm hoping she will start a Cat Daddy Bilbo Facebook page.  I'm a fan.  Bilbo is her precious rescue cat that has more than his fair share of personality.


Everyone mingles before the service. Lots of old friend here.

Bo, Ronda, and Raine finally come through the gate about 1:10.  Raine is driving.  A parking spot had been reserved for them up front.  A swell of people move toward them and Bo and Ronda are wrapped in embraces as soon as they get out of the car.

Ronda looks beautiful, as always. Serene.  You know she's hurting; it's in her eyes. Maybe it's her work experience that helps a bit, even though this one is oh so personal. She's in jeans and the orange Team Braveheart t-shirt, as so many of us are. Bo is as well. The grief shows on Bo. Straight up pain. Raw.


Bo and Ronda sit next to Ronda's mother on a wicker loveseat while Raine takes a chair next to them. Jaci begins, "When Jean called me last week and told me she had a big one for me, I thought she meant a hundred pound dog. When she told me who it was I couldn't believe it." 


John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" plays.  People weep.

"Out on the ocean sailing away
I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But I guess we'll both just have to be patient
 'Cause it's a long way to go
A hard row to hoe
Yes, it's a long way to go
But in the meantime
Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Guests were invited to speak and share memories. Justin, brave soul, went first. Voice trembling, he read his comments, a poem, and then closed with "Thank you Brave for what you taught us, and thank you Bo and Ronda for sharing him with us."  When he finished, both Bo and Ronda stood to embrace him.


Raine spoke after Justin. I knew how hard she was struggling with her emotions and how hard she was trying to keep her voice steady. I was literally willing her to get through it. "If there is one thing I wish people would take away from here today it is that we should all be kinder. We should all stop the anger and bitterness. We should all just Be Brave," she said. No truer words.  This speech, too, was followed with a poignant embrace.


Throughout the service, Bo clutched a chrome decorative object in his hand. I looked at it afterward; it spelled out BRAVE.


Cynthia, thank goodness, broke through some of the sadness with a heartfelt message about the power of social media to do good, and how everyone rose up to fight for Brave. Her speech lifted Bo, ignited a spark in him, and when she finished he got up to speak. "I wasn't going to say anything," he said, "but you sparked something in me and I want to speak."  He had us all laughing before he was finished.  I'm not sure how he did that, but we laughed.


It's such a cliche, but it started to rain, just a little. Like the sky was crying for Brave. Umbrellas came out, hoods came up, people moved around a little.  Then the sun came back; I just had to smile. I thought, perfect.  Just perfect.


As the final song played, a tearjerker song that I can't remember the name of, Bo's head dropped, his whole body sagged, and Ronda's protective arm went around him. He stood up, walked to the table and picked up his dog.  He picked up that rosewood box with the brass plaque, "Brave," on it, clutched it to him, and his whole body curled around it as he sat back down.  The dam broke and my tears flowed.  It was the saddest thing I ever saw in my life.  Ever. 


Balloon release. Biodegradable balloons. No strings. Three huge black bags filled with orange balloons. Some levity now. Some hugs and laughter as we all get a balloon.  One escapes early and drifts into the sky. I think that was was Brave's, going ahead of us.

Everyone holds their balloons aloft. Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" blasts from the pavilion and on the count we release.  Everyone's eyes follow the balloons until we can't see them any longer. 


I brought home an orange rose. I left behind a flood of tears. I took a lot of pictures. I hugged some people. I pet some dogs. I lost a friend.  So did we all.  Braveheart had a smile that I will never forget; I didn't spend as much time with Brave as a lot of people did.  I was the "Braveheart Blogger" because of my trial piece, but Brave let me love him. He let Steve walk him into the Barkus and Meoux parade a couple of years ago when we ran into him in the parking lot. He gave us kisses and he taught us about unconditional love, hope, and trust. He made all of us better human beings.


Run free, sweet Braveheart.  You were truly a champion.  No dog ever had a bigger heart or taught us so much.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Cane River Bohemia Updates and the Next Big Thing

I've spent my morning cleaning off my desk, arranging stacks of papers, binders, and downloading articles for research in preparation for my next book project. I've been scratching around this process since I finished Cane River Bohemia, and now it's time to get to work. The muse has struck.

I don't want to reveal much about the project yet except perhaps to say that it will be a nice companion to Cane River Bohemia and that Miss Cammie would definitely approve. I'm very excited about being back in writer mode and ready to get back to work. For me, writing is a very consuming process. Wish me luck.

As to upcoming events for Cane River Bohemia, I will be the speaker at the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN) annual luncheon in February; in March I will be speaking to the Baton Rouge Country Club Book Club, and in April I will be speaking to the Northwest Louisiana Historical Society at their awards luncheon in Natchitoches. I'm so grateful for these opportunities and for all of the blessings this book has presented so far.

I was thrilled last week to learn that Cane River Bohemia will be available at the Melrose Gift Shop because to me, it means Cammie has returned to Melrose (not that she ever left, really!) and it completes the histories of the trifecta of Melrose ladies: Marie Therese Coincoin, Cammie Henry, and Clementine Hunter.  The Melrose Arts and Crafts Festival will be April 6th and 7th this year and I'm happy the book will be in the gift shop for that event.

I've been extremely grateful to see the reviews on Amazon of the book, as well. The Amazon metrics are all based on reviews and this helps the book be seen.  One of my favorite authors, Steph Post, wrote:

I love a well-written historical biography and Cane River Bohemia is not only fascinating, it reads like a novel- captivating and engaging. Becker thoroughly transported me to Melrose Plantation and shed a light on a place and group of people, particularly Cammie Henry, of course, but her cultivated 'salon' of sorts as well, that I would never have known about. History buffs, but also those interested in learning more about American artist colonies and some of the creative 'influencers' of the '20s and '30s who have slipped under the mainstream radar, will definitely appreciate this book. 

Steph has a fantastic book coming out this week, Miraculum, which I reviewed here.  She's also got a great Florida crime series with the protagonist Judah Cannon and I'm anxiously awaiting the third book in that series!

So it seems Miss Cammie is settling in comfortably to her place in history and it's time for me to get to work on the next big thing!

If blogging here becomes sporadic, have patience with me once again.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Miraculum by Steph Post: A Review

I was never one of those kids who wanted to run off and join the circus, but I was always rather fascinated with that gypsy, nomadic kind of lifestyle and the various dynamic elements at play in the carnival life. Who wouldn't love to travel around the country, meet new people, develop a sort of family with your workmates, and be part of the greatest show on earth?

Author Steph Post's latest book, Miraculum, comes out January 22, and trust me, this is a book you want to read.  I was provided an advance copy by the author; I read this book in October, and I mention that only because this book is still "with" me.  I still think about it and passages still come to mind at the most random times. The characters are so vivid, so finely drawn, that they are literally living and breathing right off the page.  Even the cover of the book is beautiful!

The story centers around Ruby and Daniel, although all of the carnival-type characters you might expect are there, too.  The setting is 1922, Pontilliar's Spectacular Star Light Miraculum, and from the first passage, as Post takes us down the midway with the barker cajoling customers to enter the various tents and freak shows,  I was hooked:

"I've got the Alligator Lady and the Lizard Man! I've got a Giant so tall he can barely fit inside the tent!"  

The mysterious, elegant Daniel Revont takes it all in as he walks the midway, and of course so do we.

There's nothing cliche about Post's narrative. As the story opens, the carnival is set up near the Louisiana-Texas border and Post makes fine use of the excellent imagery the region provides. The humid summer nights, the warm breezes that sometimes suffocate you, and the midnight blue velvet skies ablaze with stars provide the backdrop for the mysterious events that transpire. The novel is very descriptive and visual with imagery that crackles like the electricity running along the midway.

"Ruby leaned on the warped wooden door frame and raked her dark, tangled hair back away from her face. Already, the early July air was stifling, threatening to choke her if she breathed too deeply. She looked out at the lonely carousel, the garish horses frozen in mid-leap, the remnants of last night's show, paper cotton candy cones and sticky candy apple straws, strewn beneath their painted hooves."

Tattooed snake charmer Ruby is at once a sympathetic and intriguing character. The carnival belongs to her father who hires the enigmatic Daniel Revont to replace Jacob, "the geek" who has inexplicably committed suicide in the first pages of the novel, thus setting in motion the events that bring Ruby and Daniel together (and not necessarily in the way you might be thinking.)

I loved both of these characters so much and Post's writing brings them both to life in a way that stays with you.  There are other characters to love: the vulnerable and beautiful January, the lead dancer in the Girl Revue; Hayden who painted the ceiling of Ruby's wagon as well as the sides of the circus wagons, and even Samuel, the mysterious right-hand man who works with Ruby's father.

Steph Post is an exciting writer to keep your eye on; I love her Judah Cannon series which in fact have nothing whatsoever to do with a circus but are set in contemporary Florida which only shows Post's range and capability as a writer, in my opinion.

I'm not going to give any spoilers or tell you how this all unfolds, but just know that this book deserves a spot on your shelf next to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this way Comes, Gruen's Water for Elephants, and Morgenstern's The Night Circus

Post did a great deal of historical research for this novel and it shows, and even though there is a great deal of historical accuracy about the carnival life in that period, the novel has it's fair share of fantasy and magic that will captivate not just fans of the fantasy genre, but anyone who enjoys a good story with intriguing characters in an atmospheric setting.

Miraculum is a fun, engaging read and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

It's Time to Put Books Along the Teche Literary Festival on Your Calendar

It's time to start filling in your new planner with cool events for 2019!

The first thing going on my calendar this year is the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, which is scheduled for April 5, 6, and 7.

This year's featured Great Southern Writer is Rebecca Wells who is the author of The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood and other terrific books.

I went to this festival last year for the first time; I was fortunate enough to have been given a media pass and so we could participate in many of the events and it was truly a fantastic weekend.  In fact, there was so much to write about, I had to do it in two posts! The first one is here and the second is here.  Steve and I fell in love with the people and the entire area and we have made several trips back since then.

This is an absolutely terrific festival! On the agenda this year:

On Friday morning, start the day off with the Tastes Along the Teche Food Demo featuring professional chefs. Last year I met my food idol Marcelle Bienvenu! You'll get some new recipes and
Just hanging out with Marcelle Bienvenu!
learn some new techniques to raise the level of your cooking. Even better - you'll also get to sample everything!  Yum!

The Dave's Haunts and Jaunts bus tour through New Iberia is offered on both Friday and Saturday. If it's the same as last year, you'll climb on a lovely charter bus and tour historic spots around Iberia Parish and enjoy the fun commentary of Danny Bonaventure of Allons a Lafayette tours. This was a really entertaining event and as newcomers to New Iberia we learned a lot on this tour. It's definitely a must-do on your list.

Another event that should not be missed is the Opening Reception Friday night at Shadows-on-the-Teche, now a National Trust for Historic Preservation site. The home is beautiful and the grounds are breathtaking. You'll be right on the historic Bayou Teche. Music is provided by the Bunk Johnson Brazz Band and there will be a cochon de lait; last year there was also catfish and other seafood specialties.  As we arrived the band was playing on the front balcony; it was magical. At the end of the evening everyone did a second line through the grounds; this was one of my favorite events. I'd suggest squeezing in a tour of the house sometime during the weekend, too.

On Saturday night is the evening party at the Steamboat Pavillion with live music by the great Terry Huval and his group. You can learn to Cajun dance and eat delicious Cajun food. The best part of this event is how fun it is and getting to really visit with the local people! It truly captures the joie de vivre that epitomizes New Iberia. Oh, and the food was pretty darn good, too and there was plenty of it!

There are so many events planned that you'll need to check out the website and plan your agenda. Some of them overlap but the planners have worked hard to ensure that things are spread out enough where you can do the ones you really want to do.

Some of the events require tickets and some are free. The Academic Symposium at the library is free and features scholars and experts in a panel discussion on selected topics. I thoroughly enjoyed this last year. Other free events include various movie screenings throughout the weekend, an Art Guild Exhibit, a book fair along historic Main Street and you can purchase food from food trucks while you browse, a Live Oak walk along Main Street hosted by a local arborist, and a children's book panel.

Part of the George Rodrique exhibit at Bayou Teche Museum
I've barely scratched the surface here, but suffice to say that this is a festival that just gets better every year and will soon be one of Louisiana's most celebrated festivals.

In addition to the scheduled festival events, New Iberia offers many unique opportunities for the tourist such as the Bayou Teche Museum with it's George Rodrique exhibit, Konrico Rice Company where you can tour the oldest rice mill in America, Jefferson Island and the exquisite gardens, and Avery Island and the Tabasco factory. You'll need more than one weekend!

You really don't want to miss this one.

Further Reading:
Take a Trip to Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part I
Take a Trip to Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, Part II
Take a Weekend Trip to New Iberia (July 2018, SIGIS)
Books Along the Teche Literary Festival website
New Iberia Travel (tourism info)
Books Along the Teche (bookstore)
Books Along the Teche Literary Festival photo gallery (Acadiana Lifestyle)

Monday, December 31, 2018

Brief Reflections on 2018

As we say goodbye to 2018, I want to take a moment to thank you guys for being here and for being a part of what was a terrific year for me.  This blog turned ten years old this year and some of you have been here since the first day.

It's been a good year.  Your support of my classroom library project has been phenomenal and it has been, and will continue to be, a wonderful success.

If you've been here a long time, you followed my Cane River Bohemia journey and we finally saw that project come to fruition this year with the publication in October of my book about the remarkable life of Cammie Henry.  What a ride that has been, and continues to be!  Thank you!

This year I discovered lots of new books to love (some in the links below), I fell in love with Acadiana and made some wonderful new friends, I attended the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival and I presented at the Louisiana Book Festival. I propagated Spanish moss in my magnolia tree, I went to some baseball games, and I tried really hard to be a nice person (it wasn't always easy!)

The year has been a good one for me, but it hasn't been for everyone and there has been a lot of loss and sadness too.

As we look to 2019, I want to keep the good vibes and momentum going. I don't make resolutions, but I do want to continue to reflect and grow every single day. Let's all remember to be kind to each other.

Tonight, if you're out celebrating, don't drink and drive. Call a taxi, call Uber, call a friend.

We are staying in, with our animals (who hate fireworks), and I'll probably be reading a book. Tomorrow, the Winter Classic and our traditional black eyed peas, greens, and corned beef.

Y'all stay safe and have a great New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Classroom Library End of Semester Update: My Students Learned to Love to Read Again!

Book donations to our new Classroom Library
The end of our first semester is upon us and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my classroom reading project that I began this year and to provide an update since so many of you donated money or sent books to my classroom.

 Over the summer I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer which then led me to other experts on the subject of independent reading in the classroom such as Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I read lots of studies and did a lot of research before deciding to dedicate fifteen minutes of every class period to independent reading; that is a whole lot of class time and I wanted to be certain that this would be a good investment.

 It was.

 Part of my concern that initiated this project was that our new curriculum, Guidebooks 2.0, strips pleasure reading and short stories almost entirely from my syllabus. It is a scripted curriculum and we are not allowed to take away from it, but we ARE allowed to supplement it, sparingly. I decided that the most important thing to me, for my students, was to ensure that they did not lose their love of reading due to the prescribed, often dry, articles, speeches, and court opinions that they are required to read, especially in the tenth grade syllabus. We have two units: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (9 weeks), and Macbeth (9 weeks). Both of those are wonderful stories (although we never read the Henrietta book, only articles about the story of Henrietta and the ethics involved); the problem is that the Guidebooks strip pretty much anything imaginative or engaging from the students.

I hoped my reading project would help keep them engaged and interested in reading.

 In my classroom this year, from August to December, my students read just over 345 books, give or take a few. As they complete a book, each student logs the title and date into his Reading Notebook; the sense of accomplishment in looking over this list at the end of the semester can be great for most students.

 Some students read a lot more books than other students, but that doesn’t take away the accomplishment of those slower readers. I have one student who has never finished a book in his life but read all of Bob Batchelor’s biography of Stan Lee. I ordered that book specifically for this student and I watched as that bookmark sank deeper and deeper into the book each day. He read the entire thing; that was a huge accomplishment for this particular student.

 At the other end of the spectrum, I had avid readers who relished the opportunity to engage in their favorite hobby and they read dozens of books.

 Every Friday my students wrote a letter to me in their notebook reflecting on what they read during the week and discussing their current book. These letters opened a dialogue between us and strengthened our relationships. Reading became a common bond for us. We talked about books and we talked about the real life lessons that they taught us.

 One of the most popular books this semester was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I bought four copies of that book, and our school library kept another copy going. The kids wanted to read it, they wanted to talk about it, and they wanted to read other books like it. When one of my girls finished it and wanted a similar book I handed her Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. In this book a boy is considering shooting the person he believes killed his brother. As he descends in the apartment building elevator, he has “encounters” with family and friends who are no longer alive and he has an opportunity to reflect on his planned action. My student was engrossed in this book and when she got to the ending, her jaw dropped and she looked up at me, wide-eyed, breaking the silence in the room with, “Mrs. Becker!”

 I love that a book can elicit this kind of a reaction from a kid!

I have a male student who was a reluctant reader and he’s been working on Hatchet all semester. Nearing the end of the book now, he just shook his head and muttered, “This lil boy has been through too much…”.

Through reading we have traveled to a mysterious Night Circus, an enchanted Hazel Wood, and explored the mysteries of outer space. We have explored the future and looked to the past. We have examined damaged characters and learned from the mistakes of others.

 On Friday, as I was grading final reading reflection letters, so many of my students expressed gratitude for our reading program; one girl wrote, “One thing I learned this week is that I remember how much I love reading and I’m proud that I read multiple books this semester.” Another wrote “I love that we get to read in here,” and yet another student who was not a particularly avid reader in August, expressed pride that she read three entire books this semester.

 Through reading these letters each week it was really gratifying to see so many of my students enjoy reading and discussing their books with me. I’ll be honest though, not every student fell in love with reading. I had a couple of boys who never got off whatever random page the book landed on. I had another boy who just grabbed a soccer book with brief biographies of soccer stars and he would prop it open on his desk to hide his phone behind it. We had multiple discussions about this behavior but I also know that I can’t force a kid to read and I refused to penalize them with grades on this. I feel strongly that reading should be its own reward.

 In the end I’d say with about 85% strong participation, 10% moderate participation, and 5% utter apathy, this was a real success for my students. I will definitely continue this program next semester which begins in January and will tweak it by talking more about the books I’m reading; I’ll also invite more open discussion about books my students are reading in addition to the one on one discussions we had this semester.

 Since a significant number of the books in our classroom library arrived through donations from our Amazon Wish List, and some of those donations came through readers of this blog, I wanted to update and share our progress with you.

 Reading opens so many doors for students on so many different levels; I feel truly honored to be able to guide my students into the world of books.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

SIGIS Cyber Monday Shopping Suggestions

Cyber Monday is upon us.  While I do advocate shopping local whenever possible, I am also a shameless participant of online shopping.  And because this blog is a participant in the Amazon Associates program and gets a tiny bit of revenue when you order through my links, I'm going to share some gift suggestions and some of my favorite things with you!

First, I offer four terrific book suggestions. Yes, one of them is mine, but hey, it's a pretty good book! The other three I have read and are among my absolute favorites: Next, curl up under one of these great blankets while you read and stay warm this holiday: Stay warm with a new coffee maker: I have all but eliminated my use of plastic bottles this year; I've been using one of these refillable water bottles every day. As a bonus I have drastically reduced my soda intake. Some of my funky wardrobe favorites: I got this green ruffled jacket this week and I love it so ridiculously much: The animals are never overlooked around here; we recently bought these self-warming thermal pads for the outside cats and they love them. I know a lot of people who won't have an Echo in their house, but honestly we love ours. I have one of the older Echos, but we talk to Alexa all the time. She plays music for us, tells us jokes, gives me news updates, weather updates, and is generally all around useful. And the Ring doorbell? Everyone needs one of those these days: Some of my "must have" products: the L'occitane skin care line has been on my shelf for over a year now and I can't imagine being without it. I love it. The Redkin products for my hair have quickly become favorites as well. When you have fine, limp hair like mine, it needs all the help it can get! The video gamer in our house is hot on the Nintendo Switch these days: I have some favorite non-Amazon shopping sites too. For unique jewelry items checkout Restrung Jewelry out of New Orleans where a portion of the profits are donated to charities like The New Orleans Musician's Assistance Foundation, among others.

I also really like the beautiful work of Bayou Glass Arts Jewelry.  I've purchased some cool, unique pieces from Contina.

For stunning photographic prints and calendars, consider Nikki Sumrow Photography out of Texas.  The Longhorn Calendar is one of my favorites and I have the sunflower prints as well.  (Full disclosure: she is my very talented daughter!)

Have a happy shopping season and please share in the comments any great deals you find out there or suggestions for this post!  I'll keep updating it!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Shop Local in Shreveport: Small Business Saturday

It's Small Business Saturday which means you are encouraged to get out and spend your Christmas shopping dollars in local brick and mortar shops.

Small Business Saturday has been around since about 2010 when American Express first offered their cardholders a small cash incentive to shop locally after the Black Friday extravaganza.

Here, in Shreveport, there are many unique local shopping options.

If you head downtown, there are lots of options, from shops to restaurants:

Downtown Shreveport POP UP Shops at Artspace Shreveport - 710 Texas Street
Hippie Baby- 450 Clyde Fant Parkway
Appli-Ks- 450 Clyde Fant Parkway
Robinson Film Center- 617 Texas Street
Epic Aquaria- 725 Milam
The Agora Borealis- 421 Lake Street
Norsworthy Gallery- 214 Texas Street
Lena's Shoe Gallery- 501 Milam Street

Other downtown businesses offering Small Business Saturday specials include: Martha's Hallmark, On Time Fashion, Bon Temps Coffee Bar, Nicky’s Mexican Restaurant, and Fully Stacked.

Here's a list of some of my favorite shops and restaurants for truly unique gifts:

King Hardware:  you can get everything from home decor to a Yeti here, and if you're looking for gifts with a true Louisiana flavor, this is the shop for you.

Sweet Tee Shreveport: cool nostalgic clothing and other gifts with a local twist.

The Enchanted Garden on Line Avenue is a great shop crammed full with unique gift ideas from ornaments, clothing, candles, and home decor.  It's a great place to find exactly what you didn't realize you needed!

Lewis Gifts is offering store wide discounts today and is a Shreveport classic.

Kings Antiques and More (formerly Kings Ransom) next to Strawns is a fun place to spend the afternoon browsing for not only antiques but unique handmade gifts and even great collectible books!

And nearby is the terrific Shreveport Trading Company in the old Sooto Records building; this is another favorite of mine for antiques, costume jewelry, glassware, and other oddities.

If you like antiques, be sure to check out Timeline Antiques on Line.  I never leave there empty handed.

At Brewniverse you can create your own beer advent calendar!

Don't forget about our local craft breweries, too.  There you can find cool swag for the beer lover or foodie in your life and certainly gift certificates are always welcome!

Obviously my tastes tend to be rather narrow so be sure to  check out Cobalt Chronicles for more local shopping haunts.  As much as I love cyber-Monday for its convenience, I truly do love shopping local and believe in supporting our local businesses.

Happy Shopping!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Take a Trip to the Louisiana Book Festival, 2018

Signing copies of Cane River Bohemia.
The fifteenth annual Louisiana Book Festival was held last weekend and your humble correspondent was honored to be a part of it as one of the presenters for my book Cane River Bohemia.

You know you have reached the surreal when you are signing books fifteen feet away from Donna Brazile who was there signing her new book, Hacks, or riding the elevator at your hotel with the legendary Ernest Gaines. I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Gaines last year at the Books Along the Teche literary festival: he is a gracious gentleman and gifted writer.

My husband and I drove to Baton Rouge Friday afternoon in time to make the author’s party at the State Library of Louisiana that evening. I’ll admit that I did think about Stacy McCain when we drove through Livonia. (You might ask him about that speeding ticket a few years ago!)

The author’s party was fabulous; there was a jazz band and enough superb Louisiana food to feast upon for days: gumbo, boudin balls, crab cakes, shrimp alfredo, bread pudding, etouffee, and of course Abita beer; the food just went on forever.

I met the most fascinating people and added to my “want to read” list in a significant way. I even added a children’s book to my list: Poncho’s Rescue: A Baby Bull and a Big Flood, by Julie Thomas, who was working with the LSU Vet school during the floods of 2016 and was involved with the team who helped save the very sick little animal after his rescue. It’s quite a story!

I ran into the fabulous Mary Ann Wilson who I met last year, also at the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival; she was giving a book talk entitled "Voices from Louisiana: Profiles of Contemporary Writers."  In New Iberia last year she spoke so eloquently on James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown I had to come home and re-read it.

With Dr. Mary Ann Wilson

I also chased down Karen McManus, author of the popular YA novel, One of Us is Lying, to tell her how much both I and my students love her book. She was very gracious and didn’t seem to mind my gushing fan-girl approach, thankfully.

And of course, I got to visit with my favorite editor, Margaret Lovecraft of LSU Press who made my book so much better than what I envisioned.

With Margaret Lovecraft, LSU Press.

Day two began with a little sightseeing around Baton Rouge; we spent a lot of time on the levee watching the tow boats and barges on the Mississippi River; we toured the old Louisiana State Capitol which is absolutely stunning.

Old Louisiana State Capitol

 The stained glass, kaleidoscope dome is breathtaking. Then we headed over to the Capitol grounds for the festival.

Stained glass dome, Old State Capitol

The Louisiana Book Festival draws about 20,000 people and is one of the top book festivals in the South. This year there were 250 authors either giving talks about their books or participating in panel discussions. There are children’s events and various live music performances as well as food trucks all day long. The book presentations take place in the State Capitol Building in the various House and Senate Committee meeting rooms in thirty-minute intervals and then the authors are shuttled over to the signing tent to sign copies of their books.

 My presentation was one of the last ones of the day and so we had plenty of time to browse the book tents while waiting. We picked up My Brother’s Keeper by Chris Blackwood, which is a true-crime thriller about the 1984 death of Gary Kergan from Crowley, Louisiana. The case went cold and was finally resolved thirty years later and it’s a wild one. Chris sat next to me as we signed books together and she signed our book! We also bought The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros, the epitome Southern Gothic novel filled with voodoo, quirky characters, and mysterious plot. It’s getting good reviews so I can’t wait to just get lost in this one.

 Louisiana is home to so many terrific and talented authors, I think in part due to the cultural diversity we have in our state. From the southern tip of the state to the far northeastern corner, we are a mĂ©lange of swamps, rice fields, sugar cane and cotton fields, and bustling cities. We are refineries and skyscrapers, blue collar workers and suits. We are the Shreveport Symphony, New Orleans jazz, and Cajun zydeco. We eat boudin, crawfish, alligator, meat pies, and the infamous gumbo. We are fine dining with a river view in Baton Rouge, woodfired pizzas at the craft beer tap room in Arnaudville, and huge homemade burgers in Coushatta, and delicious pies in LeCompte. We are magnolia trees, Spanish moss, azaleas, and cape jasmine. We are Spanish, French, African, Jamaican, Creole, Irish, English, Hispanic, but uniquely American. It is no wonder that Louisiana writers and authors create such a wonderful and diverse collection of material every single year which is celebrated at the Louisiana Book Festival.

Be sure to put it on your calendar for next year: you won’t be sorry!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bring Back the Sun

I dislike time changes.

It is, right now, 4:58 p.m., but really it's 5:58 p.m.  It is already dusk outside and the cars driving past my window have their headlights on.

When I go to work at 6:40 (7:40?) in the morning, it will be a little brighter than it was last week, but really, I don't mind driving to work in the dark.  That's a small trade for having a little daylight at the end of the day, after work. 

It turns out that we have an entomologist from New Zealand to blame for daylight saving time; he wanted more daylight hours to go bug hunting.  The Germans adopted the practice during WWI, followed by England, and then the United States in 1918 in an attempt to have more daylight working hours.

Maybe it's just winter and shorter days in general that I dislike.  I need sunshine and light.

I find all this darkness depressing. 

Yes, Christmas is nice.  All those Hallmark movies, the twinkly lights on the Christmas tree, the endless commercialization and pressure to buy things... But the older I get I find Christmas to be hard, sort of sad, and I get weepy and nostalgic.

And those long, nasty days of January and February!  They go on forever!  At least with March there is a little hope of a warm day.

Honestly I'd rather have the warm, balmy, long sunny days where I can work in the yard, walk the dog, plant flowers, and read books in the shade of my magnolia tree. 

It feels like I'm bracing for winter right now, hunkering down ready to wait out these long months of darkness until the sun shines again.  Steel gray days, wet with sleet and cold wind; bare trees, low clouds...I know it's not really that bad; there are plenty of beautiful, crisp winter days so beautiful that your heart wants to break, but, well, I'm just not that kind of girl.  I like the sun.

And in just the few moments that it has taken me to type this it is now full dark. 

Can't we just spring forward, already?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Take a Trip to the Cane River Bohemia Book Launch at Cammie Henry Research Center in Natchitoches

The Cammie Garrett Henry Research Center, NSULA
We drove to Natchitoches Thursday for the first book event for Cane River Bohemia.  I was a nervous wreck and looking back now, I can't fathom why.

The event was held on familiar ground, the Cammie Henry Research Center at Watson Library at Northwestern State University, where I did most of my research.  This is where Cammie Henry's archives are and a great deal of my research consisted of reading her letters, papers, documents, and the correspondence she received from others.

Mary Linn Wernet is the archivist there and she terrified me when I first began this project but soon became a friend and guide.  I could not have written this book without her and that's a fact.  Today, I treasure her friendship and smile every time I think about some of those days pouring over photographs with her and the discussions we had.

With Mary Linn Wernet, archivist, CGHRC

Mary Linn's assistant, Sharon Wolff, prepared a terrific exhibit prior to the book event which will remain on display for several weeks if you want to get over and see it.  It's all about Cammie and her circle of friends, and her children.  You can see photographs and scrapbook pages from Cammie's collection as well as letters between the circle of friends.  There is also a small table with Lyle Saxon's Children of Strangers on display and Caroline Dormon's Wild Flowers of Louisiana, which is very rare and impossible to find now.  It's the first time I've actually seen it and the color plates are absolutely stunning.

Wild Flowers of Louisiana by Caroline Dormon

As time for the event approached, I actually began to calm down.  The books arrived from the bookstore, the caterers arrived and began setting up, and soon the first guests began to arrive.  It meant so much to see some familiar faces and friends who drove over from Shreveport. That helped my nerves immensely.

The fabulous caterers: the cucumber sandwiches were fab!

The next two hours went by in a blur.  Literally everyone was so warm and welcoming.  Everyone was as interested in Cammie as I have been and it was especially gratifying to me to see that this is a book that people have been waiting to read.  Not necessarily MY book, but people have been waiting for a book about Cammie Henry.  Like me, they want to know more.  People got their books signed and then sat down at the tables and had refreshments or visited with friends.

During the evening I was so honored to see the president of the university, Dr. Chris Maggio, come by; he's doing great things at NSULA and is such a friendly and personable man. I really enjoyed visiting with him.

With Dr. Chris Maggio, NSULA President.  (Bill Vance photo used with permission,
Natchitoches Parish Journal).

I was over the moon when J. Michael Kinny came in.  J. Michael had The Book Merchant on Front Street for a very long time and it is still missed.  It was the perfect indie book shop and I have always wanted to open one just like it.  Maybe one day.  J. Michael wrote the blurb for the book and it was just perfect; he captured exactly what I wanted to achieve: "'ll see Miss Cammie and Lyle Saxon sitting behind the Big House sharing stories and laughter...".  I want my readers to feel like they have experienced Melrose as it was when Cammie had her writers and artists colony there.  When J. Michael came in I bolted around the table to give him a hug. I'm forever grateful to him for not just the blurb but for being who he is and for sharing books with me through his shop.

With J. Michael Kinny, The Book Merchant

One of the highlights of the evening was when the Henry grandchildren came in.  I felt right at home with those ladies and wish I could spend more time with them.  What fun they are!  We laughed and shared stories and I just fell in love with them.  They felt like family.  I could not have been more honored that they came to this event.  I wish I'd taken a picture with them!

Several ladies with the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches came by and bought books, and had them signed, and that meant so much to me.  Their mission in preserving these historic sites, Melrose and Lemee House, and well as the rich cultural legacy of Natchitoches, is so important.  Having Cammie's story now available now only adds to the rich history at Melrose and hopefully will help support their cause.  I lobbied a little bit for the site manager job at Melrose but I didn't get very far!  ;)

In short, there was never any reason for me to be so nervous; everyone was, as Natchitoches always is, so warm and welcoming.  I was sorry for the night to end.  I was sorry we sold out of books: I wanted everyone to be able to go home with a book, but the bookstore did take orders and promise free shipping as soon as they arrive, so it turned out fine.

After the event, Steve and I headed down to my favorite eatery, Pioneer Pub, for fried alligator bites (and he had eggplant fries).  After dinner we turned north on I-49 and headed home but I felt like a kid at Christmas for the next 24 hours.

I'm looking forward to sharing Cammie's story in the coming months; the next event is the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on November 9-10.

As I prepare now to begin another book, I'm not moving too far away from Cammie.  I don't want to go into details on the project yet but I will say that I am collaborating with someone on this one and I could not be more excited about it.  We've been doing some necessary legwork over the past few months and have all the pieces in place now, so I've boxed up my Cammie files, kept out the things I'm going to carry over, I've cleaned off my desk and I'm ready to start writing.

I'm not comfortable with a lot of self serving posts like this but the event was so wonderful and so gratifying that I just had to share it.  I can't thank everyone involved enough for making this happen.

Further Reading:
Cane River Bohemia Book Signing Held at Cammie G. Henry Research Center (Natchitoches Parish Journal, October 19, 2018).

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What are You Reading?

What are you reading?

I want to know!

I recently finished reading  One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood at the recommendation of my daughter, who has never steered me wrong in books, and it was exquisite.   I loved every single page and every little nuance.  It was simply the most beautiful book I've read in a long time.

It's a book that makes you feel smart, too.  So often I was thinking, "Yep, I see what you did there!  Very good!"

The premise of the book via Amazon is:
The story of your life never starts at the beginning. Don't they teach you anything at school?  
So says 104-year-old Ona to the 11-year-old boy who's been sent to help her out every Saturday morning. As he refills the bird feeders and tidies the garden shed, Ona tells him about her long life, from first love to second chances. Soon she's confessing secrets she has kept hidden for decades. 
One Saturday, the boy doesn't show up. Ona starts to think he's not so special after all, but then his father arrives on her doorstep, determined to finish his son's good deed. The boy's mother is not so far behind. Ona is set to discover that the world can surprise us at any age, and that sometimes sharing a loss is the only way to find ourselves again.
The relationship between Ona and the boy (he is never named) is charming and heartwarming.  Their conversations are delightful, funny, and enlightening.

I fell in love with Ona, yes, but I also fell in love with Quinn and with the boy who I really feel like I know.  But most of all, I fell in love with the writing of Monica Wood.

I have decided to buy this book for everyone I know for Christmas because everyone needs to read it simply because it's so beautifully written and crafted.

True love = me and this book.

I'm also doing some YA reading to keep up with my students so I just finished reading We'll Fly Away by Brian Bliss which is on the long list for the National Book Award.

This book will definitely engage my students and I can't wait to share it with them.  So many of them are in love with Angie Thomas's The Hate u Give and while this is not exactly like that, (different plot) it is as engaging.

Here's the premise for We'll Fly Away from the National Book Foundation:
Uniquely told through letters from death row and third-person narrative, Bryan Bliss’s hard-hitting third novel expertly unravels the string of events that landed a teenager in jail. Luke feels like he’s been looking after Toby his entire life. He patches Toby up when Toby’s father, a drunk and a petty criminal, beats on him, he gives him a place to stay, and he diffuses the situation at school when wise-cracking Toby inevitably gets into fights. Someday, Luke and Toby will leave this small town, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, and never look back.  
But during their senior year, they begin to drift apart. Luke is dealing with his unreliable mother and her new boyfriend. And Toby unwittingly begins to get drawn into his father’s world, and falls for an older woman. All their long-held dreams seem to be unraveling. Tense and emotional, this heartbreaking novel explores family, abuse, sex, love, friendship, and the lengths a person will go to protect the people they love.

Again, I felt like I knew these people.  Bryan Bliss has created a heart wrenching, thoroughly believable story and the tragedy of this book is that what happens to Luke and Toby can and does happen to our teenagers all the time. #truth

The writing is fast-paced, the dialogue is real, and whether or not you're into YA lit, you should read this book because it has implications for adults as well.  As a teacher, it has a message for me, too.  I'm interested in checking out other books by this author.

I've been reading a new author lately - new to me, that is.  I was checking out the list of authors that will be at the Louisiana Book Festival in November (I'll be there with Cane River Bohemia) and came across Steph Post.  When Michael Connelly writes the blurb for your book, I'm going to check you out!

I'm a stickler for reading books in order so I started with A Tree Born Crooked; again, here's the premise from Amazon:

James Hart, with a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside, does not want to go home. Yet when James receives a postcard from his mother, Birdie Mae, informing him of his father's death, he bites the bullet and returns to the rural and stagnant town of Crystal Springs, Florida, a place where dreams are born to die. James is too late for Orville's funeral, but just in time to become ensnared in the deadly repercussions of his younger brother Rabbit's life of petty crime. When Rabbit is double crossed by his cousin in a robbery-turned-murder, James and a local bartender, the unsettling and alluring Marlena Bell, must come up with a plan to save Rabbit's skin. A whirlwind road trip across the desolate Florida panhandle ensues as James tries to stay one step ahead of the vengeful Alligator Mafia and keep his brother alive. With bullets in the air and the ghosts of heartache, betrayal and unspeakable rage haunting him at every turn, James must decide just how much he is willing to risk to protect his family and find a way home.

I loved this book and I loved the characters, even the ones you're not supposed to like.  The whole time I was reading this book all I could think of was, "First novel?  Good lord, I can't wait to see what this writer can do!"

The story was fast-paced and full of suspense.  I was quite satisfied with the ending and so I moved on to Post's next novel immediately which is Lightwood.

Lightwood begins the Cannon trilogy and begins with Judah Cannon walking out of prison after serving his time for the family crime business.  He immediately reconnects with his lovely girl, Ramey, and then life gets complicated - not because of Ramey, but because  Judah is sucked back into the family business so fast he doesn't know what happened. He promises Ramey that they'll break free.  Soon.  Just not yet.  Tension.

In this book, Post creates one of the more interesting characters I've ever come across in Sister Tulah, a truly crazy preacher who has an iron thumb over the entire county.  You just know there is more to her story and Post artfully withholds some of that for later.

Where Lightwood ends, Walk in the Fire continues, the second book in the Cannon trilogy. I'm not finished with this one yet, but with only a quarter of the book left, I can tell it's going to be a real page turner until the end.  We have many of the same characters in this book as with Lightwood; even some of the ones who didn't survive Lightwood have a role in Walk in the Fire.  Post introduces a few new characters to this story and with each book I can see her craft become more and more polished.

I can say that because I've also read an advance copy of her latest novel, Miraculum, which will come out in January 2019.  I'll do a full review of Miraculum in a few weeks, closer to her publishing date, but just go ahead and pre-order that one because you're going to want to read it.

Miraculum is not about the Cannons, but is completely separate.  (Will there be a sequel, Steph?!)

 For now, I'll just say this:  think Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes crossed with The Greatest Showman, and Water for Elephants; add a serving of Steph Post suspense and tension, and you have Miraculum.  I truly loved this book and can't wait to share it with everyone!  It's the kind of book that even after you close the covers it stays with you.  You keep thinking about it.

I hope someone makes a really great movie out of this one because it's so visual and so textured; the characters are rich and finely drawn, and Daniel Revont needs to be played by Daniel Day Lewis.  Just saying.

I'm usually reading two, maybe three books, at a time and so I'm about to begin Delia Owens's book Where the Crawdads Sing.  This is another one recommended by my daughter, and like I said, she's never steered me wrong.  I can't wait to start it!  I also have some YA that I brought home for Fall Break reading: Mirage by Somaiya Daud and Dry, by Neil Shusterman among them.

How can one not love reading?!  There are so many great adventures between the covers of a book!

So, what are you reading?