Thursday, May 24, 2012

What I’m Watching Now: Two Great TV Shows About Geneology

Shortly after I got married – eons ago – I became obsessed with researching my family history.  That was back in the days before home computers.  To get records, I had to request microfiche film from our local Mormon church, send letters overseas with return postage hoping for a response, and visit libraries, city halls and government records departments, and graveyards in person. 

Genealogy research has evolved since then. Today with websites like, anyone can find a wealth of information and even connect with distant family members doing their own research. In fact, I was recently contacted by a third cousin once removed that I’d never known, and who currently lives in England. It turns out that his great-grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. It is so incredibly awesome to be able to make connections like that.

To feed my love of genealogy and of history, I’ve discovered two shows with similar themes on two different channels:  Who Do You Think You Are? (NBC) and Finding Your Roots (PBS)

Finding Your Roots (PBS) 

Finding YourRoots is the brainchild of host/producer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard University.  It began airing just this year, but is sort of a spin-off of his 2010 PBS series Faces of America, which also focused on genealogy. Gates’ programs are especially good at bringing history alive and making it personal through the stories of the celebs’ various ancestors. 

In each episode Gates focuses on three unique individuals – sometimes, but not always “celebs”—who have some ancestral characteristic in common, such as slavery or religion. Gates and his production company do all the research, and then he has a sit-down with each of the individuals, presenting them with their own personal “life book” and talking them through their ancestry and family history. Gates designs each episode to focus on an important historical aspect of our culture as a nation. 

One episode bounced between married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, riffing on the six degree of separation theme that is associated in pop culture with Bacon.  And sure enough, it turns out there is a relationship connection between the two (something like seventh cousins).

Some of the other people Gates has featured include Samuel L. Jackson, Condolezza Rice, Robert Downey, Jr., Sanjay Gupta, Wanda Sykes, and John Legend among many others. 

Gates also goes beyond simply building a family tree for each of his guests. He uses DNA testing to trace the genetic roots back into ancient Europe, Asian and Africa.  It’s often a surprise for an individual to find out what ethnic groups their family lines are or are not derived from.

Who Do You Think You Are?  (NBC)  

Who Do You Think You Are? is in its 3rd season on NBC, having started in 2010.  It is sponsored by, which uses obvious product placement for its services within every program. 

The approach for the NBC program is a bit different from PBS one, in that each episode  focuses on one celebrity who narrates his or her own journey and who reflects on the implications of what they discover about their own personal ancestry. While it’s obvious that all the research has been done prior to the celebs arrival at each location, it is fun feeling like you are traveling with them to various locations in the U.S. and even overseas. 

I was especially moved by the episode featuring Rashida Jones, actress on the comedy Parks and Recreation and daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. Jones traced her Jewish ancestry back to Latvia where she discovered that members of her extended family had been brutally murdered during the Holocaust.   

SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, Rob Lowe, Edie Falco, Rita Wilson, Reba McEntire, Martin Sheen, and Chef Paula Deen are among the celebs featured this season.

It’s important that people connect with their family histories.  While history textbooks tend to deal in generalities, when we learn the personal stories of our ancestors, we change our perceptions of what a complex history we have as a nation and what a complex culture we live in.

These two genealogy programs that I love may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But how many of us face the passing of grandparents or even parents realizing that we never asked them about their family stories?  

We can start by asking questions about where our parents, our grand-parents and our great-grandparents came from. Be inquisitive. Pull out the old photos and start a family discussion. Ask the older family members to tell their stories and the stories they heard when they were young. You might be surprised at how delighted they are to share those stories with you. 

And it is those stories, those experiences by people we may never have known, that played a role in shaping our own lives today.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: Of Mice and Men

No, I’m not repeating high school.  But I had recently read an article in the NewYork Times by an English teacher at a public school in Manhattan.  Claire Needell Hollander said this:

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

I knew about Steinbeck’s story. I’d seen clips from themovie with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.  But I had never actually read the book. I wanted to know what, in a story written over seventy years ago, could cause a teenage basketball player to cry in public.   So I picked up a copy from my local library.

Turns out Of Mice and Men is more the size of a novella.  Actually, I guess it is a novella. It was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression.  And here’s what surprised me:  I couldn’t put it down.

Of Mice and Men is the story of George and Lennie, a couple of itinerant ranch workers who are emotionally dependent on each other. Lennie is “not very bright,” as George is always pointing out. But he is kind, loyal, and strong. George is the leader of the pair, quick tempered, but looks out for Lennie. The two share a dream of saving enough money to buy a small house on a bit of land where they can raise their own food along with chickens and rabbits.

As the story opens, they are on their way to a new job, having been run out of town and their former jobsite when Lennie’s love of touching soft things (puppies, rabbits) got him in trouble for touching the dress of a woman who then accused him of rape.

Steinbeck uses “place” to put the reader into the story, describing a clearing by a pond, the bunkhouse, the harness room using simple language but evoking a clear, emotional picture. The dialogue is rife with conflict and tension, often lying just beneath the surface. The characters – Lennie and George in particular, but even the secondary characters like Slim, Candy, and Crooks – are men both flawed and beguiling.

John Steinbeck
I read Steinbeck’s novella both as someone who loves to read and as a writer learning to hone my craft.  As a reader, I am totally engaged and find myself reaching for it whenever I have a few minutes. As a writer, I am in awe of the seeming simplicity of the prose and the complexity of the characters.  The dialogue is of the age (1930’s) and reflects a culture of men in a man’s world; but every bit of it moves the story forward and offers an insight into a world into which I would never have thought I’d care to venture.

John Steinbeck is an icon among American writers. I think that, because of when he wrote and the topics he chose to write about, I never thought his work would be emotionally accessible to me. But I was wrong. After reading Of Mice and Men, I am now eager to try Grapes of Wrath.

If you want to experience one of the great American writers, but don’t want to take a lot of time away from your regular reading indulgences, give Of Mice and Men a try. You might be as surprised as I was by your reaction to this little seventy-plus-year-old story. And yes, I get it why that teenage boy wept at the end. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

An Interview with Author Geraldine Brooks

On April 22, I posted a review of a wonderful book by Geraldine Brooks called People of the Book.  I was so taken with her story that I immediately contacted the author through her publicist at Viking/Penguin, Louise Braverman. What I had not thought to take into account was that Geraldine would likely be right in the thick of promoting her newest book, Caleb’s Crossing.  And of course she was—and is.  She was getting ready to head out on a book tour when I wrote to her.

But to my delight, Geraldine Brooks, as busy as she is, responded to my email interview questions within days. Our correspondence follows. 

MCW:  Your story, People of the Book, put me in mind of stories like The Red Violin, that go back in time and give us a glimpse into the lives of people who all had a connection due to an artifact.  How did you choose the Haggadah as your vehicle of interest for People of the Book?

Geraldine Brooks [photo: Randi Baird]
GB:  It chose me, as most of my ideas seem to do.  I had heard of the Haggadah when I was a reporter in Sarajevo during the seige, and the story of its multiple rescues but unlikely hands just took hold of my imagination. 

MCW:  What amount of research did you have to do for this book? 

GB:  It was immense, really.  Everything from what makes wine kosher to the censorship of Hebrew books in 17c. Venice to what 14th c. Spanish Jews ate for breakfast...there was a lot of travel involved, a lot of library work, a lot of badgering people to let me watch them work on book conservation etc.

MCW: Tell us about your title, People of the Book.  What did you have in mind when you chose that title? 

GB:  It works on a few levels.  The basic one is, that this is the story of the people who created and saved this particular book.  The echoes, however, come from the use of the phrase by Muslims...the "Ahl Al Katib" are Christians, Muslims and Jews who each have a sacred text at the root of their faith.  Jews of course also use the phrase to refer to themselves.

MCW:  How did the experience of writing People of the Book compare to writing March, Year of Wonders or your newest book Caleb’s Crossing? 

GB:  Each has its own pleasures and pains.  POB was definately the most complex in structure because it spans centuries and cultures.  It took me a while to work out the narrative thread, the connective tissue to bind the story.  The other books each have a sole narrator which is a simpler technical structure.

MCW:  What are you working on now?  What would you like people to know about your newest project? 

GB:  Nothing, yet!   It's a bit too early...but I can say it is another historical novel, this time set in the second iron age...

MCW:  What would you like people to know about you as a writer and as a person? 

GB:  I think my books say most of it.  Well, perhaps not how much I love my wouldn't be without a dog, in my view.  Or a horse, if you have a place to put one...

My sincerest thanks to Geraldine Brooks for taking the time to communicate with me and with my readers about her book and her writing.  

Geraldine Brooks's books include: 

  • Caleb's Crossing - based on the true story of a young man from Martha's Vineyard who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College -- in 1665.
  • People of the Book - tells the stories of the people who created and handled a precious Jewish tome throughout its history. 
  • March - the Pulitzer Prize winning story that imagined what it was like for the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War.