Reading Roundup finale: Happy Hollisters, Strawbridge’s, Liz Jarvis, Erdenheim’s resident punster and more

Opinion July 7, 2011 0 Comments

By Hugh Gilmore

The first two parts of this summer’s community reading survey have produced some pleasant surprises, which I’ll relate to you in a moment. We’ll also get to hear some more reading suggestions from six more of our neighbors.

The first surprise came in the form of an email from Florida concerning something Jonna Naylor, director of the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, had written two weeks ago. Jonna said that she’d loved reading “The Happy Hollisters” as a child and had learned the finger alphabet from that series.

In reaction, a man named Andy Svenson wrote from Florida to say, “ Hi Hugh, I enjoyed your Readers’ Roundup in ChestnutHillLocal.com this week. I was especially happy to see that one of your readers mentioned “The Happy Hollisters” because my grandfather, Andrew Svenson, wrote those books under the pseudonym Jerry West. This mystery series for children was written from 1953 through 1969 for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also introduced the Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. The Hollister children were patterned on the personalities and adventures of Andrew Svenson’s own children: my father, aunts, and uncle.”

Mr. Svenson also added that the Happy Hollisters books are back in print after a 40-year absence, saying, “ I know that my grandfather would be tickled to know that people still have fond recollections of his books, and that his legacy is living on through blogs and the Internet.” The Happy Hollisters now have a website and a Facebook presence as well.

Another nice connection happened regarding Tom Keels and Larry Arrigale. They mentioned two weeks ago that they’re finishing up a book about Philadelphia’s much-loved-and-now-gone department stores. A Chestnut Hill resident named Michael Ciliberti wrote to say, “Before retirement, I had a long career in the retail business, first in a specialty shop and later at the Strawbridge & Clothier department store. I am an artist and I worked in window display … it might be of mutual interest for me to talk with Tom Keels and Larry Arrigale, as I have a great deal of information and photographs spanning several decades. Please ask them to get in touch with me if they’re interested in talking.”

Tom wrote me yesterday to say they’d had a great phone talk with Michael Ciliberti and that they’re all getting together this weekend for “show & tell.” So there, another connection helped along by the Local.

Now for some reader contributions to your possible summer reading list. A first-time contributor, but very well known Chestnut Hill resident, Liz Jarvis, offers her suggestions with great enthusiasm. Liz has been a curator at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, consultant to the Awbury Arboretum, the Wyck House and numerous local history causes since 1993. She’s also authored three terrific books about the Northwest section of Philadelphia for the Arcadia Publishing Company. Probably no one individual has done more than she to save the photos, letters and scrapbooks that compose the “paper trail” of local history.

With typical modesty, she writes, “ I have been in a book group in the Chestnut Hill area for 17 years. I consider myself the reading step-child of the group as all the others are great readers, even professional ones – English teachers and professors and librarians, to name a few. The advantage is, since they all read widely, they are very discerning and boil our selections down to about eleven interesting books a year. After a stint of not loving the choices, we had four knockouts in a row, in my humble opinion.”

The first of those, she wrote, was “Flight,” by Sherman Alexie, a Native American author. She added: “It tells the story of a contemporary, delinquent, troubled teen, that not only takes us back and forth in time, but back into history.”

Ms. Jarvis’ group doesn’t usually read non-fiction, she says, but this year, they read, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It was, she said, “about an African-American woman, who, when stricken with cancer, unknowingly gave her cells to science.”

Their next choice was “The Professor and the Housekeeper,” by Yoko Ogawa, a book she described as “a gentle story about a mathematician who lost his memory, except for 80-minute parcels, and the housekeeper and her young son who came to provide for his physical needs, but found their lives greatly expanded by this gravely handicapped man. Despite loathing math in school, I enjoyed the mathematical problems woven into this story in fascinating ways.”

Liz’s most recently read reading group book was “Little Bee,” by Chris Cleave. She said it was “so compelling, I ran extra minutes on my boring elliptical trainer in order to get to the next chapter each time I read it. This is the story of a teenage girl who stows away on a cargo ship from Nigeria, rather than be killed by “the men” for the carnage she saw in her village, and the English journalists she met on the beach, and how their lives were changed forever.”

Liz adds that she also “snuck in” “The Invisible Bridge,” a novel about Hungarian Jews in Paris and Hungary in the late 1930s and during World War II. “This too,” she noted, “was a page-turner that I was compelled to read with deepening dread, all the time thinking of my Hungarian relatives by marriage, who fled the Nazis or lived through their occupation.”

Another first-time contributor this week is Megan Greenawalt of Flourtown. We met in 2010 at what turned out to be the final birthday party for the famed centenarian and former Balanchine dancer, Yvonne Patterson, who was Megan’s friend and neighbor. We talked enough about books that day that I invited her to tell us what she’s reading lately.

She replied, “Hi Hugh – I am not sure what my claim to fame is, but my children sometimes say I am a ‘woman of letters.’ They don’t mean advanced degrees, though I am finishing my master’s this summer. They mean that I write letters – lots of letters! I fear letter writing is a dying art – replaced by email and (yikes!) texting.”

Megan says she usually sets aside a “frivolous” book for her summer beach reading. But this year, she said, “I’ll be reading ‘Upon the Altar of the Nation – A Moral History of the Civil War’ (2006) by Harry S. Stout. I recently had the privilege of breaking bread with the author, and he kindly gave me a signed copy of the book. I have always found the Civil War fascinating, and I think this book will help me see it from a different point of view. I am worried that our society is out of control and that we haven’t learned from past mistakes. I hope we are not doomed to repeat them.”

Frequent correspondent Joe Ferry, Erdenheim’s resident punster, also wrote to me. (Joe twice won a Washington Post contest award for creating neologisms. The challenge in 2000 was: “The new spouse of your former spouse is your…”  Joe’s winning entry: “Asunderstudy.”)

He writes: “Gosh. Sorry to have missed the first deadline. I couldn’t tell you what happened other than to allow that I am a charter subscriber to the Irish notion that “Tomorrow is another day.” Not that my procrastination chops need any further burnishing, mind you. (In high school one of my classmates offered “Better late than never” as a compensating palliative for a tardy assignment completion. Not mollified, the teacher retorted, “Better never late!” Indeed.

He goes on, “I recently read Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” an extraordinary true story about an extraordinary man, Louis Zamperini, an American World War II airman, now in his 90s, who was a former track and field Olympian who endured unimaginable cruelty at the hands of his Japanese captors and ultimately was persuaded by a gifted young preacher by the name of Billy Graham to forgive them.”

Other reading, Joe?

“I must credit one of your earlier columns on what your fans were reading for alerting me to the diverting “Cutting for Stone,” by Abraham Verghese, which I enjoyed immensely.” Thank you, Mr. Ferry. For your penance, say … never mind. Incorrigible.

Now we hear from the Moxey family of Chestnut Hill. Tim has contributed to this column before and also carries permanently high rank as one of the Holy Four community residents who read and helped edit a novel I wrote in 2009. He says, “Identify me any way you want – just do it in the ‘superlative degree of comparison only.’”

Okay, fine. I’ll say this: I’ve read every book Tim Moxey has recommended to me and count several of them among the best books I read in the year that I read them. No higher praise in this context.

This time around Tim recommends, “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. “It is,” he said, “a non-fiction book about a lost tribe in the Mexican badlands and the way many of them can run for hundreds of miles and for days and days, and at advanced ages as well. Really good. One thing that happens to me in the summer, reading-wise, is that I now get to actually READ the weekly New Yorker instead of just submitting to the cartoon contest.  During the school year “weekly” feels like every other day. I am always amazed how good writing can make the most mundane topics fascinating.”

This summer, Tim’s wife, Liz Moxey, is reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” to their son, Tim, “because we recently got a new dog that we named Atticus, and he wanted to understand why.” Liz is also reading “Little Women” to their daughter, Clare. His email ends with, “Hope this helps a little.”

And our final contribution of fresh suggestions for this concluding installment of the “Reading Roundup” comes from Tom Hann of Mt. Airy, an illustrator who specializes in “image restoration” for damaged works of art on paper. (web.me.com/tree.garden.workshop).

“Hi, Hugh,” he writes, “I’m never truly ‘on vacation,’ in the old sense of the term – you know, kicking back for a nice stretch in some summery location – but recently I relaxed enough to thoroughly enjoy a clever page-turner by Matthew Gallaway, titled, “The Metropolis Case.” There’s a lot to love in this book for music lovers and city dwellers. And a slyly revealing pun embedded in its title. While the world of opera is at the heart of this complex tale, a reader doesn’t need to be an opera buff to get hooked.

“I understand that this is Gallaway’s first published work. If so, he has hit the ground running. He knows his subject and manages fairly well to meld a collection of converging stories over a period of 150 years. Likable, well developed characters too. No villains here – which is welcome for a change. We have enough of those in the news. Thanks, Tom Hann.”

Amen. I hope our collective efforts in this three-part series have helped you find something you’ll enjoy reading this summer. Lord willin’ and the Wissahickon don’t rise, we’ll meet like this again after the first heavy snowfall.

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