The Ink Penn: All About Books by Kathy Manos Penn

Kathy Penn        Lord Banjo   The Ink Penn

Kathy Manos Penn is an author and columnist. Her latest book, “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” and her collection of columns, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday,” are available on Amazon. For more information, visit kathymanospenn.com,  follow Kathy on Facebook, or write her at inkpenn119@gmail.com.

 05/23/18: Reading in the Dark

No, I don’t mean Dancing in the Dark, though I am a Bruce Springsteen fan. I’m talking about being so addicted to reading that, as a child, you tried reading under the covers with a flashlight late at night.  Is there anyone else out there who did that?

 I have a vivid memory of doing this, using the only flashlight I had handy—one of those tiny flashlights I got at the circus.  Of course, I was supposed to be asleep, but I was such an avid reader, that there were a few nights that I tried to read past my 8:30 PM bedtime.  When I was caught, can you guess what my mom said?  I’m sure you can: “Reading in the dark will make you go blind, and then you won’t be able to read at all.”  That was threat enough to make me stop cold turkey.

 I’ve yet to overcome my childhood addiction to reading, and I’m sure there are worse things to be addicted to. I read one to two books per week, and look forward to reading more when I’m on vacation.  On some vacations--those where we bicycle all day or stay up late sipping wine and talking—I can be hard pressed to squeeze in much reading; but on trips that combine shopping, leisurely lunches, chit-chat, and an afternoon nap, I manage to read plenty.

 On one such trip, I started reading The Last Child by John Hart, and it was slow going at first, so I wasn’t tempted to read much at night.  Once I got into it, however, that changed, and two evenings I stayed up past midnight because I couldn’t put it down. That would have been fine if I’d been sleeping in, as I like to do on vacation, but since both my companions were early risers, I was up early too.  

 Late night reading and childhood memories remind me of a WSJ column I once read, The Kid Who Wouldn’t Let Go of The Device.  The author tells the story of a child who was given The Device at age two and couldn’t put it down and carried it everywhere, a child whose addiction continued into adulthood, someone who panicked at the thought of being without The Device for any amount of time. The punchline? She’s writing about her own addiction to books and thinking of today’s parents who may be worried that their kids are addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other technologies cropping up.  

 The parallels are thought-provoking for me, as I well remember being labeled a bookworm, and not in a nice way.  My parents worried that my addiction would doom me to being shy and unpopular—something that never came to pass. Today’s parents worry about the effect all this technology is having on attention span and social skills. Who knows? Those may be unfounded worries too.

Me?  I’m happy that these days, we can all read just about anything in the dark—without a flashlight—as long as we have a tablet, a laptop, a backlit Kindle or a Smartphone.  And, hey, I’ve been known to resort to candlelight in a pinch.  After all, it was good enough for Abe Lincoln.

 05/13/18: I Spy

 Is it a game, a book, a television show?    I suspect many of you first thought of the children’s game that parents encouraged during those long family car trips of old.  Either that was popular after my childhood, or we just played other games. Truth be told, we were well occupied with reading our books on our trips up and down the East Coast to visit relatives.

 Your next thought may have been the old TV show with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby or, depending on your age, the movie with Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy.   I recall the TV show fondly along with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., another spy show with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Yes, McCallum had a career before NCIS.  The 60’s and 70’s were Cold War decades; hence the preponderance of books and shows about spies.  Even The Wild, Wild West had spies as the main characters.

 It was a book review, though, that caused the phrase I Spy to pop into my head. I was intrigued by a review of The Empire of Night, a novel by Robert Olen Butler, set during WWI.  I discovered it’s the third in a series featuring Kit Cobb as a journalist- turned-spy. I’ll soon be searching for the first book either on Amazon or at library sales. Anticipating the successful conclusion of that search made me reflect on the many authors and series I enjoyed in the 70’s and 80’s.

 Robert Ludlum was my favorite long before the Bourne Identity became a hit movie series.  I read almost all of Len DeightonJohn Le Carre, Ken Follet and Trevanian.  My all-time favorite spy novel, though, had to be Tears of Autumn written by Charles McCarry in 1975.  This review explains what I liked about it: “Spun with unsettling plausibility from the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and featuring secret agent Paul Christopher, it's a tour de force of action and enigma.”   For years, I recommended it to everyone I knew, and when I married 19 years ago, I found a copy for my husband. He enjoyed it as much as I did, so much so, that I bought him several other Paul Christopher books.  I, for some reason, have never read the others.

 I've occasionally thought of picking them up off our very crowded bookshelves and digging in, but somehow I always have another book to finish first.  Could that be because I’m forever buying books? Or because the McCarry books are in another room? This time when the thought crossed my mind, I followed through and read the very first in the series, The Miernik Dossier. And, though it’s rare if not unheard of for me to read a book twice, I reread the second book in the series, Tears of Autumn. Well, let me qualify that claim; there have been times I buy a book and start reading it only to find I've read it before. That’s a hazard of so much reading.

 More recently, we’ve been watching the final season of “The Americans,” the FX series about Russian spies embedded in America.  Only after the last show airs this week will I be able to return to reading about the Cold War.

 

04/30/18: Chris Bohjalian: A Prolific Writer

I am a mystery addict, but I also enjoy an engaging novel from time to time.  The works of Chris Bohjalian fall into that second category.  When I began to think about which of his novels I’d read, I was surprised that I’d read four of his twenty books.

 Three of his novels have been made into televisions movies—“Secrets of Eden,” “Past the Bleachers,” and “Midwives”—and another three are in development.

 I first discovered Bohjalian when “Double Bind” came out in 2007. I was probably hooked by the references to the “Great Gatsby” in the reviews.  “Double Bind” ranks up there as one of the most intriguing books I’ve read. The lines blur between Gatsby’s tale on Long Island and this story that takes place in Vermont. I was kept guessing until the very end, and even then I questioned what had really happened. 

 When I went to Amazon to get a bit of info for this column, I was shocked to see the book’s average review rating was a mere 3.6 out of 5. I guess it’s not to everyone’s taste, but I couldn’t put it down. One review described the novel as evoking Fitzgerald and also channeling Hitchcock.  I think of it as literary fiction.

 I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read “Skeletons at the Feast,” a love story set in Germany during WWII. In the book, people are trying to escape from Germany and reach the Allies. The cast of characters includes an aristocratic Prussian teen, a Scottish POW, and an escapee from a train on its way to Auschwitz.  I think it was while reading this novel that I came to realize how fluid the borders were in Eastern Europe in the 1800s and 1900s.  It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be Prussian one year and German the next. Reading novels like this one makes me realize just how fortunate we are here in the US.

 Off and on through the years, I’ve read quite a few novels set in Europe during WWII, but none set in Italy until I read “Light in the Ruins.” It begins in Tuscany in 1943 with another aristocratic family.  They don’t try to leave Italy, but they do seek to escape entanglement with either side. The story moves between the war and 1955 as it reveals the story of the Rosatis. It’s as much a story of family as it is of the war.

 Bohjalian returns to modern times and Vermont in “The Sleepwalker.  I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that the sleepwalker, Annalee Ahlberg, disappears one night.  The plot describes how her disappearance and her sleepwalking play out in the family dynamics. The story kept me guessing.  Was she alive somewhere?  Had she died? 

 I suspect I’ll pick up another of his books again one day.  “Sandcastle Girls” has been on my list for a bit.  For some reason, the plot of his latest book, “Flight Attendant,” doesn’t grab me, though it’s getting rave reviews.  Perhaps I’m attracted to his books because they provide not only character studies, but also mysteries.  Whether you’re a mystery fan or a fan of well-written novels, I don’t think you can go wrong with a Bohjalian book.

04/13/18: 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime

“So many books, so little time. With this in mind, the Amazon Books editors set out to compile a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. We had a few goals when we started out: We wanted the list to cover all stages of a life (which is why you'll find children's books in here), and we didn't want the list to feel like homework. Of course, no such list can be comprehensive – our lives, we hope, are long and varied – but we talked and argued and sifted and argued some more and came up with a list, our list, of favorites.”

This is not your father’s Oldsmobile--not your English teacher’s list. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as the Amazon staff debated their list, and I must admit I’ve only read 25 of their recommendations. I read quite a few in high school and as a college English major because they were required reading. I’m pretty sure The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird were high school reading, while Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and Slaughterhouse Five were assigned in college. The rest were picked up for pure pleasure along the way.

I read In Cold Blood and Portnoy’s Complaint because so many folks recommended them, though I can’t say they were a pleasure. The World According to Garp, on the other hand, is an all-time favorite. I have a vivid memory of vacationing in the Bahamas, standing in the galley of our sailboat with book in hand, reading.

Little House on the Prairie books were favorites from the library. Other than Dr. Seuss, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins and a few classics like Heidi, we didn’t purchase many books when I was little, but I still have those my Mom bought me prominently displayed on my bookshelf. Uh-oh, I’m headed down memory lane--The Five Little Peppers, Big Red, Black Beauty—and need to reel myself in.

At the other extreme in subject matter, Valley of the Dolls doesn’t strike me as a must read. It was one of those racy books I read in high school, which I’m sure I didn’t really understand back then. I’d have to agree that Donna Tartt’s Secret History was a great read, reminding me in many ways of A Separate Peace, which didn’t make the list.

I can think of plenty of books that coulda / shoulda been on the list. Amazon, in fact, invites readers to comment on the list and make suggestions via GoodReads. A quick glance at that site reveals some worthy additions—Jane Eyre, Little Women, Animal Farm, Wuthering Heights. I smiled when I saw Watership Down, which I’d completely forgotten.

Of the 25 I’ve read, I only strongly disagree with one--Gone Girl. It’s a book everyone said I had to read, but once I did, I didn’t care for it--at all. I think it was the absence of likable characters. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll put a book down and stop reading it if it doesn’t grab me, something I never did when I was younger. Gone Girl I finished only because I wanted to see what happened to the characters, no matter how loathsome.

The good news is there are plenty of enjoyable books to choose from, and if my Amazon and library sale purchases are anything to judge by, I’m making every effort to get to them all.

Kathy Manos Penn is a Georgia resident. Her latest book, “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” and her collection of columns, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday,” are available on Amazon. Follow her on Facebook and contact her at inkpenn119@gmail.com, or both.

 

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