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Book Review

Author Sarah Beth Durst with a copy of her new book, 'Spy Ring.' Photo by Heidi Sutton

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

The prolific and talented writer Sarah Beth Durst has published over two dozen books, with several reviewed in this publication: The Stone Girl’s Story, The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, Even and Odd, and most recently, the thriller The Lake House. Durst has a particular gift for world-building, which is most prevalent in her fantasy works. With the Young Adult novel Spy Ring [HarperCollins/Clarion Books], she embarks on a different setting—Long Island and the very real Setauket and its environs. 

Rachel and Joon have been best friends since kindergarten, when they bonded over a pirate fantasy. Now, eleven years old, in July, between fifth and sixth grade, they have decided to be spies. Additionally, the inseparable pair are facing Joon’s imminent move out of the district, both fearing the toll the distance will take on their friendship.

Rachel’s mother is marrying Dave, her longtime boyfriend, of whom Rachel likes and approves. Rachel overhears Dave telling her mother that he wants to give Rachel a family heirloom, a ring that might have belonged to Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong. Strong was possibly the only known female member of the famed Culper Spy Ring that fed vital information to George Washington from 1778 to 1783. (Thus, the double meaning of the title.) Given an opportunity, Rachel sneaks a look at the ring. Engraved on the inside is “August 1 6, 17 13. Find me.” With this first clue, Rachel and Joon initiate a quest to solve the significance of this cryptic inscription. 

Rachel and Joon’s search takes Nancy off the page and makes her real to the two young detectives. The story briskly zig-zags throughout the Three Village area, with visits to the Setauket Presbyterian Church’s cemetery and Patriots Rock, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, the Vance Locke murals at Setauket Elementary School, the Setauket Village Green, Frank Melville Memorial Park, the Setauket Grist Mill, and Caroline Episcopal Church. Durst describes each locale colorfully but succinctly as their hunt becomes an almost “history alive.” Central to the quest is time spent at the invaluable Three Village Historical Society, where they receive help, insight, and encouragement.

Durst has a terrific sense of humor, with the pair garnering one clue by remembering “the worst field trip ever.” She also gives insight into the complicated issue of historical accuracy.

“‘Sometimes historians make mistakes […] or more often, they don’t have all the information yet […] reconstructing history is like piecing together a puzzle where there’s no picture on the box, half the pieces have fallen on the floor, and the cat has eaten a quarter of them. You try to guess what the picture looks like as best you can with what you have.’”

Rachel and Joon learn that the Culper Spy Ring was the most effective espionage organization of the Revolutionary War. None of the spies ever admitted to being spies in their lifetime. Everything is theory, but much unearthed evidence supports these hypotheses. 

The author nimbly weaves historical facts and intriguing gems that paint a vivid picture of the time. She vibrantly imparts Rachel’s excitement:

The fizzing feeling was back. She had in her possession the ring of a spy who’d defied her enemies, aided George Washington, and helped found America. Even better, this spy had sent a message with her ring: Find me. This felt like the moment right before the sun poked over the horizon. Or right before a batch of dark clouds dumped buckets of rain. Or right before she bit into a fresh slice of pizza. 

The ability to communicate not just the narrative but the roiling feelings of the young—this aptly labeled “fizzing”—separates Durst from many less accomplished YA writers. The narrative is more than a mystery but a real novel of summer—of bike rides and bonds that run deep, about the fear of loss and the expectations of the future. 

One of the most evocative descriptions is that of a school during vacation:

It felt so strange to be in the school in July. The hallways looked as if they’d been abandoned. Half the bulletin boards were naked—only plain brown paper with a few leftover staples. Some staples had tufts of colorful construction paper stuck to them, like bits of party food caught in one’s teeth. 

Perfectly conjured is the combination of stillness and expectation. “It was strange to see a classroom without any students in it, in addition to the empty halls. It felt as if the whole school were holding its breath.”

A ring, a stone, a key, a powder horn, a codebook, a family Bible—even rudimentary invisible ink—are all part of this journey that is not so much historical fiction but history adjacent. 

In the end, one of the most powerful statements is the realization of why Strong left the clues. Rachel recognizes that “[Nancy] wanted someone to see her.” Sarah Beth Durst’s engaging Spy Ring offers two heroes. The first is a woman who may or may not have been the burgeoning nation’s Agent 355. The second is a spirited, insightful young person in a lively, magical adventure story.

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Meet the author at a book launch hosted by the Three Village Historical Society at the Setauket Neighborhood House, 95 Main St., Setauket on Monday, May 20 at 7 p.m. The event is free. To pre-register, visit www.tvhs.org. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

By Melissa Arnold

Author Deborah L. Staunton

Just about every kid has trouble getting to sleep at some point. Whether they’re scared of the dark, worried about monsters under the bed or can’t turn off a chatty brain, restlessness is always unsettling. Through the lens of a curious, resilient protagonist named Josie, Deborah L. Staunton’s new children’s book, Owls Can’t Sing, helps kids face their nighttime fears and celebrates what makes them special. Gorgeously illustrated and fun to read, this book could be a big help — at bedtime or otherwise. 

Tell me about yourself. Did you always want to be a writer?

I grew up in Port Jefferson … I’ve always loved books and writing from as early as elementary school. I can remember my second grade teacher putting on my report card that she loved reading my stories, and I kept a journal beginning around 10 years old. Family, friends and teachers were always so encouraging of my writing.

What did you pursue as a career?

I went to college at the Clarion University of Pennsylvania [now PennWest University Clarion] for early childhood education, and while I was there I fell in love with the theater. So I was still majoring in education, but I was at the theater every free moment I had. Later, I went back to school for theater arts ­— I spent one year at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately graduated from SUNY New Paltz. I developed a background in both children’s theater and adult theater, did a lot with stage management and lighting, and worked on the tech side of those things for many years.

So you’re trained in education and theater — where does writing fit in?

Writing plays such a huge part in my life. In so many ways, it’s what saved me. I’ve been through a lot, and writing is my coping mechanism. It’s the way I sort through things. I’ve had many pieces published in literary journals and magazines, and I also had a book come out last summer called Untethered, which is a memoir in poetry and short prose. It’s about my growing up with a mentally ill father, raising a mentally ill daughter, and experiencing four miscarriages along the way.

Is Owls Can’t Sing your first foray into children’s literature?

Not really — but it is my first work for children that was published. I always thought children’s literature would be my path toward publishing. I started sending out different manuscripts as far back as 1990, but the market is so inundated and I never got anywhere. I continued to write and attend writing conferences, publishing short pieces here and there until Untethered took shape, but I never gave up on kids’ books.

How did you finally publish Owls Can’t Sing?

I belong to the Author’s Guild [a national, professional organization for published writers], and a woman from there posted that her sister was starting a new publishing company called Two Sisters Press. They were seeking submissions, so I sent in my memoir and the children’s manuscript. Ultimately, they loved both, so I went from nothing to having two books published in less than a year! It’s been wonderful. 

Did you ever think about self-publishing? Why did you go the traditional route?

I pursued traditional publishing because, truthfully, I wanted validation that I really was talented and had something to offer. It was a dream of mine, and I was willing to do the hard work, taking rejections and feedback and eventually having someone choose me. It wasn’t without its disappointments or frustrations, but it was absolutely worth it.

How did you connect with the illustrator, Akikuzzaman Utshoo?

My publisher had a few illustrators I could choose from, but their styles weren’t what I had in mind, So I took on the financial responsibility of finding someone on my own. I went on the website Fiverr and saw an example cover illustration which was very similar to what is now the cover of Owls Can’t Sing. I just loved it. It was a painstaking process of working on one illustration at a time while navigating language barriers between us. Pictures are such a big part of children’s books, and I’m so glad it came out the way I envisioned.

What was the writing process like? Was this the original concept from years ago?

No, I had written a different children’s book back in the 1990s. In 2013, I met a woman at a writers’  conference who had many children’s books published. I asked if she was willing to work with me privately, and we talked weekly on the phone for eight weeks. When I gave her the manuscript, we started formulating a totally new idea. She asked me what my daughter was studying in school, and at the time it was owls. By the end of eight weeks, we had a new manuscript that didn’t resemble the original at all.

Is the main character, Josie, based on someone in your life?

My daughter is 18 and my son is 14. The character of Josie is inspired by my daughter, who has struggled with a lot in her life, including sleep. I want people to know that we don’t all fit into the same box. We don’t all have to be neurotypical, or exactly the same as everyone else, to be “normal.” We are who we are, and that’s fine.

Is there a recommended age for this book?

It’s good for all ages, but would be the best fit for ages 3 to 8. 

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a collection of poetry in memory of two friends that I’ve lost, and hopefully another children’s project, including one with my dad.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking about writing a book?

Never stop writing, and don’t be afraid to share your story because we all have a story to tell! Find the right people who are willing to give you good feedback along the way and help you to become a stronger writer. It doesn’t have to be a fancy program. But don’t go through the writing process alone.

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Owls Can’t Sing is available at your favorite online booksellers. Partial proceeds from the book will go to the International Owl Center (www.internationalowlcenter.org). Meet Deborah L. Staunton at Rocky Point Day at Rocky Point High School, 82 Rocky Point Yaphank Road, Rocky Point on May 19 where she will be selling and signing copies of her books from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Follow her online at www.DeborahLStaunton.com and on social media @DeborahLStaunton.

Author Maria Dello with her dog Theodor.

By Melissa Arnold

Author Maria Dello at a recent book signing.

Maria Dello of Westbury has spent the past 20 years teaching others how to improve their lives through good nutrition. She also has a deep love for animals, and over time she began to consider how she might make a difference in their lives, too. As shelters filled again when the pandemic eased, Dello wanted to spread the message that dogs require a lifelong commitment of time, love and care. Her first book for children, Theodor Says: Dogs are People Too!, draws connections between human and animal needs through the adventures of her real-life pup, Theo. This book is an excellent introduction to animal care, especially for early readers.

Did you have pets growing up that made a big impact on you?

I grew up in Westbury, and our street was comprised entirely of our relatives. We all had dogs, and there were also chickens, some rabbits, a lamb, and a pony. I was always a nurturer — the one that would be out feeding a baby chick in the incubator with a little eyedropper of sugar water. I was the youngest of five children, and I always had a German Shepherd who would be my buddy, so my love for them began when I was young. I learned compassion from my grandmother and the other members of my family. They taught me that all of us need to be cared for, and that animals give us such love. 

Tell me about Prince, the dog on the inside cover of your book.

Prince was my previous German Shepherd that I had for almost 13 years. I learned so much from Prince, especially his incredible intelligence and the skill he had for reading body language and understanding what was going on with the people around him. He was a constant source of comfort for my elderly parents, and we were amazed at the depth of his feelings. That was a real “a-ha” moment for me — that he felt many of the same emotions that humans do, and that there are great health benefits to sharing our lives with them. After his passing, I really wasn’t ready to get another dog, so I started working with rescue organizations and doing some schooling toward training dogs.

You ended up becoming a nutritionist. How did you become interested in animal nutrition?

I went to school for science at SUNY Farmingdale, and then went on to study nutrition at the American Health Science University. During that time, I became fascinated by all of the natural ways of treating various conditions. I was constantly learning and going to seminars, and had a lot of exposure to alternative medicine that made a big impact on me. I ended up working with a cardiologist and eventually opening my own nutrition practice. My focus was on human patients, but I always had an interest in doing what I could to support the nutrition of my animals as well.

I would take a variety of online courses about nutrition and dogs. During the pandemic, so many people were getting dogs to keep them company during the lockdown. My patients would occasionally ask me questions about their dogs, from nutrition questions to advice about behavior. 

So when did you first start thinking about writing a children’s book? 

Theodor the German Shepherd poses with Dello’s first children’s book.

As people went back to work [post-pandemic], so many dogs were struggling with their families no longer being home, or just not being given the same degree of care. But they still need walks, food, baths, medicine, companionship. You make a serious commitment when you bring a dog home, and they can’t just live in a crate or in a doggy daycare. Some people don’t understand that puppies like to chew on things, or they might pull on their leash during a walk. That’s not their fault — they need our help to learn manners. 

As rescues and shelters began to fill, I felt the need to educate others about what dogs need. They have so many of the same needs and feelings that we do, which inspired the title of the book: Dogs are People, Too. 

I’ve been writing a nutrition column for more than 15 years, so I have writing experience. I decided that a children’s book would be the best place to start because that’s where learning begins, when we’re young. Look at me — the compassion I developed for animals began when I was small and was exposed to those good habits.

Did you pursue traditional publishing or self-publish?

I started writing in 2022, and it took about two years to complete. I did a lot of work researching publishers, and I appreciated that this publisher, Fulton Books, was like a one-stop shop. They provided everything I needed, including an in-house illustrator. 

Is there a target age in mind for this book?

It’s short and sweet, but when you show this book to a kid, they respond to the bright colors and the activities that Theodor is doing. It’s written in simple language, but it will be a great teaching tool for kids of any age, from 3 to 13.

Are there health benefits to having a dog?

First, it’s important to do your research before you get a dog, and choose the kind of dog that matches your lifestyle. Someone who isn’t very active wouldn’t do well with a German Shepherd. They need a calm lap dog that will keep them company.

Even the simple act of petting a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure, and there was a study done recently that showed people were 33% more likely to survive a heart attack if they had a dog at home. If you walk your dog for 30 minutes in the morning, then a few times later in the day, suddenly you’ve walked an hour together. You get fresh air, you bond with the dog, you meet people around you … it doesn’t just benefit them, but it also improves your health, physically and emotionally.

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Theodor Says: Dogs are People Too! is available now at your favorite online booksellers. Join author Maria Dello for a book reading and book signing at The Next Chapter, 204 New York Ave., Huntington on Tuesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. Keep up with Theodor at www.theosaysdogsarepeopletoo.com, and learn more about Maria Dello at www.dellonutritionals.com.

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'Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land' cover

By Melissa Arnold

Author Bill Kiley

Four years ago, Bill Kiley of East Northport published his first book for children, Hope and Freckles: Fleeing to a Better Forest. The book follows a mother deer, Hope, and her young fawn, Freckles, as their lifelong home in the Olden Forest becomes increasingly dangerous. Food is also scarce, and the pair have no choice but to run away in search of a safer place to live.

Now Kiley has published a second book in the series, Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land.

As the newest residents of the Big Pine Forest, Hope and Freckles each struggle in their own ways to adjust to life in their new home. The language spoken in Big Pine Forest is unfamiliar, and while young Freckles catches on quickly, Hope lags behind and needs help communicating with others.

Big Pine’s reaction to Hope and Freckles is mixed, and not all of their neighbors are kind. Some are curious about the newcomers, who have a different fur color and eat strange foods, while others are suspicious or even rude. Hope and Freckles have to make daily decisions about when to blend in and when to honor their own ways of doing things.

As in the previous Hope and Freckles installment, this story gives young readers a first glimpse into the difficult choices made by refugees and immigrants seeking a fresh start in the United States. The book gently and compassionately explains concepts like asylum-seeking, discrimination, cultural traditions and assimilation in an age-appropriate way.

There’s something for everyone in this book — toddlers will love the vivid wildlife art and adorable faces of the characters. Illustrator Mary Manning has a classic style that’s perfect for a children’s book, and it’s hard not to think of Bambi while moving through the story.

For older readers who are ready to explore the book’s deeper message, a useful collection of vocabulary words, questions and resources will help kick off discussions about real-world issues. Teachers, parents and other adult leaders can easily build a lesson around this material.

Kiley spent more than 30 years in law enforcement and was profoundly impacted by the experiences of immigrants and refugees he met. Their reasons for leaving home spanned from famine and drought to political upheaval and oppression.

Following his retirement, political issues and humanitarian crises around the world led Kiley to do more research on refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are currently 37 million refugees around the world.

“I became frustrated by the negative opinions held by some people toward all immigrants, and I wanted to do what I could to change those views. So I thought, what if I wrote a book series geared toward children that could introduce them to the difficulties faced by refugees, while also making an impact on the adults who read along with them?” he recalled.

Since then, he’s spoken in schools and churches about immigration issues, and even visited college students to talk about writing children’s literature.

While the Hope and Freckles books are geared towards younger readers, one especially poignant memory for Kiley came from a visit to a local high school. He told the students to imagine coming home from school and being told they needed to leave their home forever in 30 minutes, and could only bring a backpack.

Their teacher had the students do the exercise at home, then write a reflection about what items they packed and how they felt throughout the process.

“I was so impressed by the feelings they shared about that experience … most importantly, that they had never considered what it would be like to have to leave everything you love behind and that their eyes were opened to what other people are facing,” Kiley said. 

The author hopes that his books encourage readers to reach out to people who are different from them, including those of various races, cultures, economic backgrounds and social identities.

Kiley is currently working on a third Hope and Freckles book that focuses on what causes “othering” and discrimination. He aims to include animal characters with disabilities, as well as different family structures and religious beliefs.

“I have a deeply-held belief that we are all brothers and sisters,” he said. “We can choose to ignore people who are suffering, we can choose to reject or demonize them, or we can educate ourselves, talk to one another and work to find solutions.”

Hope and Freckles: Learning to Live in a New Land is available at your favorite online booksellers. For educational resources, updates and more from Bill Kiley, visit www.hopeandfreckles.com.

Reviewed by John Turner 

We humans have done a pretty good job at mucking up the planet, scraping away the planet’s skin for minerals and timber, farms and ranches, not to mention the type of development that characterizes so much of Long Island — shopping centers, industrial parks, and residences. These impacted places, especially the first few, lend themselves well to rewilding to restore the natural, living fabric that was once there.  

You might reasonably ask “What is rewilding?” not to mention what wilding means. As we learn in The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small (Bloomsbury Publishing  PLC) by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell, it is a form of ecological restoration (to restore to the wild condition). What separates it from typical ecological restoration efforts, however, is that the rewilder may not try to restore exactly what was once there or definitively know what species end up colonizing a rewilded site. In this regard rewilding falls in between active, intense hands-on ecological manipulation and non-intervention or just letting “nature take its course.” 

The concept of rewilding developed in the late 20th century when several conservationists offered a vision of North America, rewilded through the implementation of three “C’s” as guiding principles — cores, connectors, and carnivores. Cores involve the expansion of national parks and other public spaces; connectors involve land protection work to connect these expanded public spaces so wildlife can move between sites to promote genetic health among species through genetic exchange and as a hedge again local extirpation in one area; and, lastly, carnivores means the introduction of predators such as wolves, bears, etc. where possible, recognizing the critical role they play in maintain the health of ecosystems.

In Europe, where there are not the expansive wilderness areas like those found in North America, rewilding has taken on a slightly different definition or tone. Here it is viewed as “kickstarting the ecosystem” or as the authors state: “Putting nature back in the driver’s seat.” They do this by restoring rivers and wetlands by restoring their hydrology, promoting keystone species (species that play a disproportionate role in maintaining the stability of a natural community just as a keystone in an arch keeps an entire arch intact), reintroducing missing species (or if they cannot be reintroduced due to extirpation introduction of surrogate species that behave in a similar way ecologically) and implementing strategies to promote biodiversity, which as its name suggests is the full suite of living things in a specific area.       

We learn this and so many other things in this rewilding guide. And what a guide it is, all 559 pages worth, providing both breadth and depth on insights, principles, ideas, and strategies on rewilding. It is easy to get intimidated by this book given its level of detail and the sheer amount of information it contains. However, it is written in a clear and straightforward style, the authors recounting years of experience in their effort to rewild  a 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex, Great Britain. 

The book is a “how to guide,” covering all the elements necessary to make places that have been compromised once again ecologically diverse and stable, thereby providing the numerous benefits in the form of goods and services intact wild areas provide (e.g. clean water and air, soil creation, timber and wild food production). 

While some chapters on wilding have limited applicability to Long Island or New York State, such as introducing large herbivores, a number of chapters in the book have specific relevance to Long Island.

One such chapter is the discussion on “rewilding water.” As the authors note,  wetlands — rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, bogs, marshes etc.  — cover a tiny percentage of the Earth’s  surface, estimated to be about 1 to 2%, but contain habitat for 10% of  all animal species and 30% of all vertebrate species. It is clear: wetlands are important from an ecological and biodiversity perspective. 

What are the elements of rewilding a wetland, say, a stream? 

◆ Restore naturally meandering, S-shape channels in the waterway if previously straightened (so many streams and rivers have been in an effort to carry water away); 

◆ Revegetate the banks to eliminate erosion and plant trees along the banks to create shade that create cooler water conditions conducive for fish like trout (the authors recommend 50% of the water surface be shaded);

◆ Leave tree trunks and branches that have fallen in the stream since they provide hiding places for aquatic wildlife; 

◆ Create pools in the stream bed so water remains for invertebrates and fish during low water periods and create gravel bars that provide microhabitat for invertebrates; 

“Daylighting” streams by unburying them and removing structural conduits; and

◆ Removing weirs, dams and other impediments to the movement of fish and other aquatic animals.  

This last recommendation has special relevance to Long Island as the overwhelming number of streams contain obstacles from past road and railroad construction and placement of grist mills. Dam removal would immediately help a number of species such as river herring and American eel. 

The book makes similar constructive recommendations relating to other rewilding elements such as vegetation and with animals. A section entitled “Rewilding Your Garden — Applying rewilding principles in a small place” may be of special interest to homeowners. It contains great tips on how to make the surroundings around a home more diverse and environmentally friendly, not to mention beautiful.  

Each chapter has an introduction and then for ease of reading has distinguishing green colored pages which highlight a separate but related section providing informative specifics of the rewilding effort; these are called “Putting It Into Practice”. This approach is useful in distinguishing theoretical and scientific underpinnings of rewilding from the practical steps needed to achieve the desired rewilding element.  

Underpinning this book is an optimistic perspective that with careful, sensitive and appropriate human intervention, nature can heal itself, if given half a chance. 

As the book makes clear, if the ideas, strategies, and recommendations flowing from rewilding principles are implemented in your backyard garden, neighborhood park, or on a much larger scale knitting together national parks, the natural world will be a more healthy, diverse, richer and beautiful place.  

The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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From Angels to Werewolves: Animal-Human Hybrids in Myth and Art

By Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

St. James resident Philip F. Palmedo has produced a beautifully written and generously illustrated book on a subject that has intrigued, delighted, and frightened children and adults from ancient days to the present: therianthropy, the mythological ability of humans to metamorphose into animals or animal-human hybrids.  

“The concept of the therianthrope can catalyze the creative imagination,” writes Palmedo. 

The first that we know of is the Upper Paleolithic Lion-Man carved out of woolly mammoth ivory some 40,000 years ago. While we can only conjecture why it was created, we know that more recent animal-headed deities like the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis played important roles some 5000 years ago in weighing the worth of a person after death.

In the Hindu pantheon, elephant-headed, four-armed Ganesha is widely revered as a bringer of good luck; in Christian art winged angels abound, by turns avenging and comforting. In the 20th century, the ancient Greek legend of the fearsome Minotaur, a man with the head and tail of a bull, served as Pablo Picasso’s “allegorical alter-ego . . . with many of his etchings, paintings, and sculptures featuring this mythical bull-man.” 

Imaginative minds past and present have created talking animals, from the wicked snake in Genesis that tempted Eve in the Garden to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and lovable Big Bird of Sesame Street. 

Shape-shifting, the ability to change from human to animal or to an inanimate object, abounds in Greek mythology. One rather improbable example is that of the god Zeus changing into a swan to seduce Leda. In another example, as retold by the ancient Roman poet Ovid, the beautiful river nymph Daphne was “shapeshifted” by her father, morphing into a laurel tree to defeat the unwelcome advances of Apollo, the Greek god of the arts. The sadder but wiser Apollo paid tribute to her by adopting the laurel wreath as his crown. 

In America, therianthropy is on display in The Wolf Man horror films, from Lon Chaney’s 1941 portrayal to Benicio del Toro’s in 2010. More recently, the widely consumed Harry Potter tales spun by prolific British writer J. K. Rowling charmed children and adults with a talking bird, Hedwig, and with Firenze, the centaur who rescued Harry from the villain Voldemort. 

Centaurs, mythic creatures with the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse, are the land complement to creatures with human upper torsos ending in huge fish tails — mermen and the alluring mermaids sighted by lonely mariners whose names derive from the French word for the sea, La mer. Palmedo’s chapter, Merpeople, is richly illustrated with examples in art from 6000 BC Serbia and 4th century BC Greece to 19th and 20th century India, Japan, Great Britain, and Denmark, including the bronze sculpture The Little Mermaid that overlooks the harbor in Copenhagen. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale published in 1837, that fable might bring tears to one’s eyes. 

On the other hand, Norman Rockwell’s 1955 Saturday Evening Post cover, The Mermaid, can only make us chuckle with its depiction of an elderly fisherman hauling a beautiful mermaid home, her long elegant tail protruding from the large wooden fish trap on his back. 

This elegant, art-illustrated book written with clarity, printed on glossy paper, will entertain and enlighten. It can be purchased from Amazon. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A Ph. D. in Nuclear Engineering from M.I.T., Philip F. Palmedo, former head of the Energy Policy Analysis Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory, was for many years Chairman of the Washington-based International Resources Group, which he founded. A former Trustee of Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in Physics and Art History as an undergraduate, Palmedo formed and was President of the Long Island Research Institute. He also serves on the MIT Council for the Arts, and is a fellow of the Williams College Museum of Art. Palmedo’s previous book was Deep Affinities: Art and Science.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel 

“I had a couple of script pages in my hands (my palms were also good and sweaty): I had six lines to read. The show, titled Happy Days, was to revolve around a group of wholesome high school kids in 1950s Milwaukee. The character I was reading was the group’s one renegade. His name was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz.”

Henry Winkler fittingly opens his extraordinary autobiography Being Henry (Celadon Books) with his audition for the television sitcom that would make him one of the most memorable cultural icons of the 70s. Happy Days would run for eleven seasons: Winkler (along with Tom Bosley) would appear in all 255 episodes.

But Winkler is not solely defined by this. In a nearly sixty-year career, in addition to a wide range of acting, he has been a producer, a director, a philanthropist, and a children’s book author. With Being Henry, Winkler offers an honest, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining memoir. At that heart is a man who “can’t remember not feeling an intense need to perform.”

Born in New York City to German Jewish immigrants who fled Berlin in 1939, Winkler shares his difficult childhood with emotionally distant parents and dyslexia—undiagnosed until he was thirty-four. He “was the kid who couldn’t read, couldn’t spell, couldn’t even begin to do algebra, or geometry, or even basic arithmetic.” His failing grades led to humiliation; his parents referred to him as dummer Hund—dumb dog. With these challenges, he marvels at graduating from high school and college (a BA in drama from Emerson College, with a minor in psychology) and a Masters in acting (Yale School of Drama). 

From there, he paints a portrait of a struggling New York actor working in commercials to support low and non-paying theatre. His film break came with The Lords of Flatbush. Soon after, he moved to Hollywood, making a memorable guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Continuing through rounds of auditions and disappointments, he landed the role of Fonzie when he was twenty-eight.

The career-defining rebel eventually became a bit of a trap, but Winkler shows enormous gratitude for Happy Days. He is particularly generous in praise of his colleagues on both sides of the camera. He is forthcoming about his relationship with the cast, especially Ron Howard, who was the original focus of the series. Howard’s frustration with the shift from ensemble to a Fonzie-centered show moved him towards his directorial pursuits. Winkler and Howard maintained a personal and professional relationship, with projects spanning from Night Shift to Arrested Development.

He claims many of his initial movie jobs came from fame and not necessarily talent; he spent years trying to escape the shadow of the Happy Days persona. “The truth was that the Fonz aside, I was half-baked as an actor. Self-conscious.” Few performers are as brave and self-reflective. 

Winkler is honest about his insecurities, his frugality, and even his occasions of obliviousness. He addresses the double-edged dangers of stardom. He talks about his verbosity, which increases when he is insecure or nervous. He admits when he feels disconnected or unsure, he talks too much.

He finds humor in his early failed romantic forays and smartly lets his wife, Stacey, speak for herself in various junctures in the book’s narrative. He does not shy away from his guilt and frustrations with intimacy and communication, something he did not fully deal with until therapy in the last decade. (He has been married to Stacey since 1978. He helped raise a son from her first marriage, and they have two children together. In addition, they have six grandchildren). 

After the Happy Days run, he did not act for seven years. Rather than retreating, he embarked on new vistas. He started a production company, began directing, and developed into a sought-after voice artist. Years later, he added best-selling children’s author, collaborating on twenty-eight “Hank Zipzer” novels about an elementary school student with dyslexia. The books became a well-received television series. 

Eventually, his acting career blossomed again. Scream, The Water Boy, and Royal Pains, along with “a string of authority figures lacking authority,” were hallmarks in later years. He returned to the stage, appearing in two Broadway productions, including a Neil Simon premiere.

His most recent sensation, HBO’s Barry, rewarded him with a much-deserved Primetime Emmy Award. (Note: He had already received two Daytime Emmy Awards.)

Winkler analyzes his initial meteoric fame and values its many gifts; he remains humble in his over half a century of remarkable and unique achievements. He is philosophical, embracing “that you couldn’t have known then what you know now. That only the process of living gets you there: you must do the work in order to eat the fruit of growing—of being.”

Henry Winkler’s beautiful account is, of course, a book for Happy Days fans. But it is also for readers seeking to understand the world of show business as told through a transparent and often profound narrator. And finally, Being Henry should be read by every actor or artist who has ever questioned their own value.

Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond is available on Amazon and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Author Carl Safina with Alfie

Reviewed by John L. Turner

Perhaps it’s due to an owl’s forward facing eyes, imparting a humanlike aspect to its face, that is the source of the long-held belief that owls possess great wisdom and intelligence. Actually other birds, most notably members of the crow family like ravens, crow, and blue jays do best in intelligence tests but you wouldn’t know it from the photo of Alfie, a screech owl, that adorns the cover of Carl Safina’s new book Alfie & Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe. With an intense stare suggesting human level concentration possessing sickle shaped talons clutching the branch, Alfie is a vibrantly alive bird,  an impressive predator that fully “knows” how to be an owl.    

The book involves the author raising a young screech owl dealt a terrible hand that would have been a fatal one were it not for the intervention of the author. Along the way Alfie learns to become more independent, finds a mate and raises a family of three.     

Author Carl Safina

What becomes immediately clear and what I did not know despite being neighbors and friends of Carl and Patricia, but what I should have known given their abiding and deep interest in the natural world, is just how much time they spent closely watching Alfie reach her potential, blossoming into a fully functioning adult owl, one member of a five member family — all during the COVID pandemic. 

They both, but especially Carl, spent what must be hundreds of hours observing Alfie.  And as a reader of the book will soon discover, this world enlarges with the appearance of her mate Plus-One and the logical results of Plus-One appearing on the scene — three young baby screech owls. These babies, individually and together, are variously described as: “little spheres of fluffiness,” “a fat ball of a baby,” and a “fluff-jacketed cutie.” The quintet were named “The Hoo,” who together “remained down-jacketed, fluffy, light as the clouds above them.”

In this way the book is a classic story of a scientist delving deeply into the world of a wild animal, along the lines of Douglas Chadwick’s The Wolverine Way, Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven or Maria Mudd Ruth’s detailed study of the Marbled Murrelet in Rare Bird. There’s exploration and analysis, observation and interpretation, study and understanding, and most importantly the development of a strong relationship. 

What’s unique in Alfie & Me is this all takes place in an acre or so around their suburban home, and within that area most within a 50-foot envelope around the house. This story, the development of an intimate “around the house” wild bird-human relationship, ties Alfie & Me with Julie Zickefoose’s Saving Jemima, in which the author spends a good part of a year raising a blue jay to health and independence. There are many delightful parallels between the two books.  

Unlike Safina’s earlier books like Song for a Blue Ocean, A Sea in Flames, Voyage of the Turtle, and Eye of the Albatross, Alfie & Me, is more of an extension of, and elaboration upon, some of the concepts advanced in Safina’s three most recent books: The View from Lazy Point, Becoming Wild and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. These later books explore the intellectual, emotional, and sensory world of animals, their societies and culture, and complexities in the relationship and attitudes of humans with other life forms, specifically, and the natural world generally. 

A fundamental aspect of the book is, of course, the interspecies relationship between a few humans and a few owls with colorful side notes on a few dogs and a flock of chickens; an overlapping connection between the one world of the two species, the author aptly emphasizing Alfie being able to place “a wing in ours, I, with a foot in hers.” Or “….the ability to walk the bridge Alfie had opened between their world and ours.”  

The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is one of two common woodland owls that find breeding habitat here on Long Island. Along with their much larger cousin, and sometimes mortal enemy the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Screech Owls are surprisingly common in forests both large and small. Even parcels as small as ten acres are likely to host a breeding pair. Less common woodland owls here include Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus) and Long-eared Owls (Asio otis) “whoo” are joined by open country visitors during the winter months — Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus), coastal and grassland inhabitants respectively.  

And unique to the owl species found in eastern North America, screech owls come in two color forms or morphs. Alfie and Plus-One are red or rufous morph individuals which is the more common form on Long Island. Or as Safina notes “a magical russet comet.” The grey form, however, is more common throughout the species range.  

Safina is a highly gifted writer, quite adept at turning a phrase and the book is replete with colorful imagery and strong sentences, to wit: “I have always felt that my generation existed in a time spanning the last good years and the beginning of the end of the world,” “The air was stock still. Leafy canopies of maples and the spires of cedars formed a denser darkness against the star-studded vault of space”,  and “If they fell to the ground, they’d still climb straight up a trunk, but they were also realizing that crossing distances involved flapping their interesting upper limbs. In a way, they were finding their inner owl.”  

This book would be a worthwhile read if all it presented was a highly articulate description of  screech owls and their behavior and ecology. But it’s so much more. Alfie provides a feathered springboard for the author to discuss how western thought, espoused by western thought leaders (think Descartes, Bacon, Dawkins, et al.) has led to the dangerous result and our current predicament where so many members of human society are estranged from animals and nature with the resultant deterioration of the global environment. Their “reductionist” thinking of animals as being nothing more than soulless machines incapable of thoughts, emotions, even the ability to feel pain, was all pervasive resulting in the view that humans commanded a lofty and unique perch above lowly forms of life that gave them full dominion over all animals.   

In contrast, Safina documents, Eastern and North American Indigenous cultures and religions held views that better harmonized humankind with the animal kingdom and the natural elements of the world. A world with more passion and less consumption. Clearly, the book is an exploration of proffered beliefs, strongly held. 

This book also is an exultation of life and living things, a fundamentally and qualitatively unique aspect in this otherwise lifeless universe, a concept that Safina notes and embraces and Alfie illustrates. Life is something worth celebrating, cherishing, and protecting. “The owls gave us the opportunity to pay attention. That was their main gift to us: to be present for a while in the always magical here and now.”

Through Safina’s prose we all can take delight in his decision to intercede and change what was clearly a fatal trajectory for Alfie. We are all the richer for his intervention. Safina ends: “It was amazing how quiet and empty the air could feel once you subtracted owls. But now I knew they were out there, livening up the nights with or without me. Yes, I felt an empty nester. But I’d been dealt a full house, a winning hand.”   

Both Carl and Alfie have a lot to say. And we gain pleasure in listening. Alfie & Me is a most important book and a most compelling and worthwhile read — we too have been dealt a winning hand. 

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'Gemja: The Message'

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In K.M. Messina’s debut novel, Gemja: The Message, the author presents an engaging blend of science fiction and fantasy, combined neatly with a dose of romance and shades of New Age. With Resa Stone, she offers an honest, smart, and insightful protagonist. The book spans three worlds as well as ventures into dream states and astral projection. All the elements fuse to create a compelling, fast-paced read.

Author K.M. Messina

Gemja takes place in an alternate present. “Five years ago, an alien culture had presented itself on Earth, changing everything humans knew and thought they knew about the universe. Besides Earth, there were twenty-five other known planets in the cosmos that harbored sentient life, and alien technology had made interstellar travel among these civilizations simple and quick.” Resa’s father, a former chief of police, was the first person on Earth to make contact with alien life. The Stones became part of the “Worlds Meeting Worlds” experiment, a function of the Interplanetary Peace League (IPPL), which is central to the action. The family was one of a few chosen to live for six months on a foreign planet. 

As the story opens, Resa, her parents, and her twin brother, rebel-want-to-be Dakota, have lived under the tangerine sky of Wandelsta for three months. Resa, a witch-in-training, is a wonderful contradiction in terms—in short, a true teenager: “I was a logical, straight-A science geek, yet I believed in magic and ghosts. I would take the time to stop and help a turtle safely cross the road, but then I’d rush home to join my brother in watching a UFC fighting match where guys in a cage pounded each other to a pulp for sport.” Both spiritual and one hundred percent American youth, Resa struggles with day-to-day existence on the crimson-sanded Wandelsta that serves as an interplanetary garbage dump, with spaceships leaving tons of waste for disposal. The strange atmosphere shifts daily into a dangerous, polluted, and tangible “toxia.”

Resa spends her day drawing and writing in a journal to be published upon her return. At night, a dream vision, Nitika, tells her, “You are the one,” and there is something she must retrieve. In addition, she meets a strange young man with violet eyes to whom she finds an immediate attraction. Later in the story, this enigmatic figure becomes important in Resa’s journey.

Incidents send the family back to Earth early. They return to Mount Desert Island, Maine, greeted as celebrities. Resa learns of a deeper connection to her Wiccan grandmother, now suffering from dementia. The mystery surrounding her grandmother informs a great deal of the supernatural aspects. In the magic world of the novel, “a spell was a prayer said with intent, and earthy objects like wood and stones have the energy to give life to your most far-fetched wishes.”

From there, Resa, her friend Sarah, and Dakota travel to the Academy in Oganwandok, the universe’s capital, to engage in secret studies. The Academy trains young people to “become the future leaders, peacekeepers, and advocates for change across the cosmos.”

The driving force of the novel’s mythological foundation is the titular legend of Gemja, explaining the origin of the universe. The crystals of Gemja contain extraordinary powers, one of which comes into Resa’s possession. The unification of the crystals will no doubt be central to subsequent books. “… If all the crystals are found and activated, space will warp to reveal Gemja, a glorious crystalline planet where our every wish comes true.”

The author expertly weaves exposition and character, smartly painting a picture of a family dealing with a unique situation. Messina is a gifted world-builder, introducing a range of species: the rodent-like Slopees, the kind, well-meaning, and generous indigenous population of Wandelsta; the charming plant-like Yrdians from the rain-deprived Yrd; and the docile pacifists, the Ploompies of Glucosa, a sugar-based planet, under attack by the insectoid Siafu.

One of the book’s most memorable and affecting elements deals with the Stones’ homecoming, where life is now somehow more alien. Messina makes a profound and pointed statement about the ugliness of immigrant paranoia in several incidents in their brief time back on Earth.

Gemja is rich in adventure, humor, and humanity, balancing its reality with the fantastical. From first to last, the novel will delight readers of all ages, a gateway to a unique world that promises to grow with each welcomed addition to the series. 

Gemja: The Message is available at www.amazon.com. Visit the author’s website at www.kmessina.com.

Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Carolyn McGrath’s Two Faces of the Moon: A Small Island Memoir [Brandylane Publishers, Inc.] first presents as an idyllic echo of the natural world. And while the book touches on the bounty and splendor of nature, the work is much more. Two Faces is a rich, sometimes dark, but wholly truthful familial reflection.

Author Carolyn McGrath

While written during the pandemic, Two Faces of the Moon takes place in 2001, the year of her nonagenarian mother’s passing. McGrath establishes the tone by opening with her delivery by cesarean section—“lifted into the world unsullied by the normal push and pull.”

McGrath’s storytelling is boldly unsentimental. She was born to a mother of thirty-six and a father of forty-seven, a man who had a daughter from a marriage twenty years earlier. McGrath lost her father when she was seventeen but found herself constantly drawn to this “troubled man, an alcoholic, a heavy smoker, a war veteran, whose great talent for cussing often caused my mother to cover my ears. A father who clearly wished he had a son instead.” 

The statement paves the way for years of rumination about their thorny relationship, explored throughout this slender, powerful autobiography. While many works of this nature err towards the hagiographic, McGrath is unflinching and frank in her account.

Each summer, McGrath leaves her Long Island suburban home to drive five hundred miles north to Bob’s Lake, Ontario. There, she spends several months living in the 1926-built log cabin her father bought in 1937 for $400. Life is rustic, with an outhouse and a four-burner kerosene stove. She must drive to the nearby farm to draw drinking water from a well. She is accompanied by her dog, Blue, and is joined by the neighbor’s dog, Ring. 

While pondering the saying, “You could never go home again,” she answers: “The trick is to have two homes and never really leave either. I leave home to come home every summer and find it just the same.”

While the book delves into the history of the island, the house, and the lake, Two Faces of the Moon is, first and foremost, a tale of family. McGrath’s vivid, distinctly raw prose recalls the opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She alternates between the 2001 narrative in present tense and musings on her parents’ lives. The intersection creates friction that leads to constant sparks of insight. 

She celebrates her isolation. “The delicious feeling I have of being alone here is nothing like loneliness.” She examines the motivations for these journeys: “I discovered my craving for solitude when I realized that I was losing myself. There must be many wives like me who feel their lives were commandeered by the demands of marriage and family.” While directly referencing her parents, family, and friends, she never speaks of her husband by name. 

For all the things she admired about her father, she was afraid of him and felt “as a role model, my dad was terrible.” The outdoorsman focused on fishing, hunting, and frogging. “Guns were like wallpaper while I was growing up.” She aimed to please him but was also aware of the complexity of their bond.

In the present, she details visiting her elderly, ailing mother in the nursing home located an hour from the cabin. She paints one of the most vivid and heart-breaking portraits of aging, with a painfully accurate depiction of dementia. Her reaction to her mother’s passing and its aftermath is one of the most insightful moments in the book.

“While I’m here in the cabin, I feel I’m with both of my parents. My dad’s presence is everywhere […] my mother’s apron still hangs behind the kitchen door…” She shares her parents’ histories, scrutinizing their paths as a tool to reflect on her own choices. She accomplishes this without judgment but with a keen self-awareness. “It seems to me that children are born to be conflicted,” asking the questions: “Which parent do you love more? Fear more? Respect more?”

Living on the island is meditative, her own Walden Pond. And while she examines her life, she never loses the chance to be at one with her surroundings. “I wake up to the sound of Ervin’s cattle lowing lazily across the bay, where they’ve come down to drink. Through the window, I watch seven young ducklings following their momma […] all moving as one large duck atom, no sound. Song sparrows have hatchlings in a tree cavity …” 

Her world is a strange mix of stillness and teeming activity, allowing her to think, wonder, and, above all, feel. McGrath imparts wisdom and fallibility in equal measures. In short, she movingly presents a human being in all her dimensions. McGrath knows a long life comes with “pleasures and rewards, its booby traps and tortures.” She shares her experiences, trials, triumphs, and perspectives in the honest, sometimes lyrical, and always memorable Two Faces of the Moon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Carolyn McGrath has a degree in classics from the University of Iowa and an MA in creative writing from Stony Brook University in New York where she taught for years in the Department of English and directed the Stony Brook $1000 Short Fiction Prize. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Two Faces of the Moon is available on Amazon.com, and at Barnes & Noble.