Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mysteries on PBS

Summer is the time when most network TV shows wind down, but on PBS, two of my favorite shows are just winding up. “Mystery!” has already started running on Sunday nights and this year includes episodes of “Foyle’s War,” a truly engrossing series starring the thoroughly watchable Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks as Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle and his driver, Samantha Stewart, solving mysteries on the homefront (the British homefront, of course) during World War II.

This Monday, June 25 (but check your local listings because PBS shows can vary), the new season of “History Detectives” begins, starring four experts in history, art history, and art appraisal who track down the real history behind folklore, artifacts, family legends, and heirlooms. Example: A woman owns bullets her family believes were recovered from the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde. The history detectives go to work, finding out if the family story is true, and if not, what the real story is. Many times the legends about the objects are not true, but the real story turns out to be fascinating.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More About the Liberty Memorial Than You Probably Ever Wanted to Know

For Father’s Day, my sister and I took our dad, his friend, and our aunt to the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, and WOW—I knew the new museum was supposed to be terrific, but I had no idea how terrific. I am, I admit, a total history geek, so this kind of thing is right up my alley, but even for non-geeks it’s cool. And for my family, it was cool in a personal way.

First, a bit of Liberty Memorial history: Immediately after the November 11, 1918, signing of the armistice to end The Great War, the people of Kansas City began planning and raising money for a monument to honor the men and women who had fought and died. On November 11, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge came to Kansas City to dedicate the memorial tower and its two exhibit halls. Sadly, over the years, Liberty Memorial fell into disrepair. Happily, in the late 1990s the people of Kansas City once again began raising money (this time in the form of a tax increase), and in December 2006, the newly restored memorial and brand new museum—the only museum dedicated solely to World War I—was opened.

The museum is circular. When you enter, you cross a glass bridge that spans a field of 9000 red poppies—one poppy for each 1000 lives lost in WWI. (You know those red paper poppies the VFW sells on Memorial Day to raise money for disabed veterans? They symbolize the lives lost in WWI and were inspired by “In Flanders Field,” a poem by a Canadian officer who was struck by the beautiful poppies that continued to grow amid the death and destruction on the battlefields of Belgium.)

The first exhibit is a short movie showing the circumstances in Europe leading up to the war. You then enter the right side of the circle, which contains exhibits and a timeline (through March 1917) showing Europe and parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia at war, including weapons, uniforms (I loved this part—uniforms from Australia, Japan, Africa, and even a Scottish kilt), posters, propaganda, and re-creations of French and British trenches so that you can get a feel for the daily bleakness and misery of the soldiers’ lives.

The entire back of the circle is the Horizon Theater, where you watch another movie, this time showing how the United States was pulled into the war. And WOW, what an experience this is. First of all, this movie (as well as the movie at the beginning) is interesting and dramatic and pulls you into the time period. But what makes this second film even more dramatic is the way the Horizon Theater is set up. Museum-goers sit on a balcony overlooking a life-size re-creation of a battlefield, with an enormous widescreen theater screen at the back, so that the film plays behind—and eerily lights up—the soldiers and scarred landscape.

The theater leads into the left side of the museum, dedicated to the involvement of the United States in the war. This is where it starts to get personal.

Again, a bit of history, this time about my family: My grandfather, my dad’s dad, who died when I was four, fought in France in World War I. He was in the 89th Division, 353rd Infantry Regiment, from Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas.

And on one wall of the U.S. section of the museum we found insignias of each WWI division, including the 89th, known as the “Rolling W.” Beside it were several old photos of various military units, including the 353rd Infantry. The photo was high on the wall and hard to see, especially since each soldier’s face was so tiny, but with my aunt’s help—and a big magnifying glass—we think we found Grandpa.

Outside, above the museum in one of the original Exhibit Halls that flank the memorial tower, we found maps of the Argonne Forest, which showed exactly where each regiment of the 89th Division, including the 353rd, fought during battles in September and October 1918. Grandpa told my dad and my aunt he’d gone “over the top,” meaning out of the trenches and into close combat, three times—and these maps showed us exactly when and where. For me, it was like reaching back through time and meeting the grandfather I remember and love, but barely got the chance to know. And I think for my dad and my aunt, it was like once again being—at least a little bit—with the father whom, forty years after his death, they still sorely miss.

To honor my grandfather, we bought a brick for the section of the Liberty Memorial Walk of Honor dedicated to World War I veterans. It will be installed in mid-October, just in time for Veterans Day (which seems fitting, since Veterans Day was, until 1954, called Armistice Day to commemorate the signing of the WWI armistice on November 11, 1918). It will say:

Knud C. Knudsen
353rd Infantry

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Signing at Borders

Yesterday my local Borders in Lawrence, Kansas, hosted a book signing and reception for me, in honor of Airball being named to the 2007–2008 William Allen White Award list (the student book award in Kansas), and Lisa, the Borders manager, and Annie, the children’s books manager, really went out of their way to make it wonderful. They set me—and a mountain of my books—right inside the front door and put out cookie and strawberry shake samples from the cafĂ© to entice patrons over to the table. Annie stayed with me, welcoming customers and gushing about Airball. I felt like a celebrity.

I saw one of the girls I met at Thursday’s library visit in Eudora. She brought a friend who hadn't been able to come to the library, which really touched me. Several friends stopped by, including one of my dearest college friends, who has been moving around the country the last ten years for her husband’s job and who recently moved back. It was great to see her.

In fact, it was a great day all the way around.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chatting in Eudora

Today I went to the library for lunch. No kidding. The Eudora Public Library in Eudora, Kansas, invited me to their Brown Bag Teen Summer Reading group. About ten kids came, and we met outside on a shady spot on the library lawn. I talked a bit about writing and my books, then we chatted while we ate. The kids asked smart questions, and I tried to come up with at least semi-intelligent answers. It was relaxed and informal, and I had a really good time. One of the girls from the group told me she wants to be a writer and a journalist, which is great. I love to hear from kids who are pursuing their dreams.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On the Wings of Heroes

I just finished Richard Peck’s On the Wings of Heroes and loved it. I wasn’t sure I would at first. I love historical fiction, but when I started this book, I was afraid it would be one of those “wasn’t life better and more charming back in the day” author memoirs thinly disguised as fiction. I shouldn’t have worried. Richard Peck is too good a writer for that. I’ve loved his recent books, including A Long Way From Chicago, A Year Down Yonder, and Fair Weather.

On the Wings of Heroes is the ambling and episodic tale of Davy Bowen, a boy coming of age during WWII. The episodes are held together by the over-arching question of whether Davy’s older brother, Bill, a pilot flying missions from England, will survive and return home. The story is sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes both.

Which is my very favorite kind of story.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fun in Emporia

Okay, so when most people think of fun, the words “Emporia, Kansas” don’t usually leap to mind, but I had a great time at the Author Extravaganza at the Town Crier Bookstore in Emporia yesterday. The store was packed with writers—over forty of us—signing books and chatting with patrons, bookstore employees, and each other. Several school librarians brought their libraries’ copies of Airball for me to sign, and my cousin, who lives in Emporia, tracked me down just to say hi and get me to sign a book. Plus Emporia has one of those lovely old downtowns, with wide streets, tall buildings, and independent non-chain shops—hardware stores, coffee shops, Town Crier, of course, and a gourmet chocolate shop.

Now that I’m home, I’m getting ready for a teen brown bag lunch and book talk next Thursday at noon at the Eudora Public Library.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Love Letter to Bookstores

This Saturday, June 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., I’ll be part of the Author Extravaganza, a booksigning of over forty Kansas authors at Town Crier in Emporia. Once again, I am humbled by how enthusiastically my regional bookstores have embraced Airball: My Life in Briefs. Here, in no particular order (except the chaotic order in which my brain spits them out), are a few of the bookstores that have gone out of their way to promote Airball, with a big thank you and a cyber hug to each of them:

Town Crier BookstoreEmporia, Kansas
Becky at Town Crier has been promoting my book, stocking my book at regional library fairs, and has invited me to participate in the Author Extravaganza.

Oread BooksUniversity of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas
Lisa at Oread arranged three booksignings for me right after Airball came out, including a group signing during their annual holiday faculty and staff open house. The staff has really promoted Airball and at one point displayed it in three different areas of the store.

The RavenLawrence, Kansas
Pat Kehde and Mary Lou Wright, owners of this fabulous mystery bookstore, have talked up Airball, reviewed it in their newsletter, and promoted it on their weekly radio spot.

Borders BooksLawrence, Kansas
This Borders has invited me to their store twice—the first time for a booksigning during last year’s Educator Appreciation Week, and again for the upcoming booksigning and reception on June 16, 2007, at 3 p.m. The reception is to celebrate Airball being named to the William Allen White Award List.

Claflin Books and CopiesManhattan, Kansas
Even though Airball centers on KU Jayhawk basketball and contains scenes set at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Stormy Lee Kennedy and her crew in Manhattan (home of rival Kansas State University) have promoted the heck out of the book and made sure it was available at the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave and library events. Stormy was also on the judging panel that selected Airball as a Kansas Notable Book.

The Book BarnLeavenworth, Kansas
Bob and Barb Spear, owners of this eclectic independent bookstore, have made sure Leavenworth knows about Airball and last December invited me to be part of their Christmas Open House.

Watermark BooksWichita, Kansas
The staff at Watermark has really pushed Airball, featured a really terrific review of it on their website, and made the book available at the Kansas Author Dinner at last year’s Tri-Conference. Watermark’s Mark David Bradshaw listed it as one of his favorite books of 2005 and published a nice long interview with me in The Wichita City Paper during last year’s Kansas Book Festival.

Book Kansas!Wichita, Kansas
This website-based bookstore, devoted to promoting books about Kansas and by Kansans, has made sure Airball was available at the Kansas Author Dinner and other book events around the state.

Reading Reptile
Kansas City, Missouri
Deb and Pete at this fabulous (and I’m not exaggerating—Reading Reptile is fabulous) children’s bookstore in the charming Brookside section of Kansas City have invited me to be part of their author’s breakfast in July.

And I know I’ve probably forgotten some terrific bookstores that have gone above and beyond to help readers find my book (please—leave a comment if you know of one I’ve neglected to mention). I’m lucky to have so many passionate booksellers in my neck of the woods.