Transcript / LoLT: Judith Viorst & Alexander and Two New Books — 02 February 2024

Transcript / LoLT: Judith Viorst & Alexander and Two New Books — 02 February 2024

Friday, 2 February, 2024

This is a transcription of ‘LoLT: Judith Viorst & Alexander and Two New Books — 02 February 2024’

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[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, a queer coming-of-age story set in Jamaica.

David: An art heist set during WWII.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

Melissa: When we did our Strong Sense of Place episode about Jamaica, I fell in love with the place. Now I keep my eyes open for more books set in Jamaica. This week, I really want to read a book called ‘Broughtupsy’ by Christina Cooke.

Melissa: This is a queer coming-of-age story that takes place over two weeks in 1996. It’s told from the first-person point of view of Akúa, a 20-year-old queer woman who’s returning to her native Jamaica from Canada for some family business. She and her 12-year-old brother were living in Vancouver, but he’s died of sickle cell anemia — the same disease that took their mother. Now Akua is returning to Kingston with his ashes and to be reunited with her sister.

Melissa: To say the sisters have a strained relationship is an understatement: Akúa left Jamaica, and she’s gay. Her older sister Tamika stayed in Jamaica and is deeply religious. Jamaica is a dangerous place to be gay, so Tamika is troubled by her sister’s sexuality. ‘They will laugh at you and spit in your face,’ she says. ‘Are you listening? They will stone you. They will bring their machetes and guns…. They will butcher you in broad daylight then leave you to rot. And the police will pay you no mind.’

Melissa: Which does nothing to bring the sisters closer. Instead of being cautious, Akúa starts a relationship with a stripper who shows her a different side of her hometown. Akúa’s voice is very strong, and the author Christina Cooke sprinkles Jamaican patois into the dialogue.

Melissa: I should also mention that the title Broughtupsy is a term used in the Caribbean to describe someone who’s been brought up with good manners and social etiquette. Two times during her difficult attempts to feel at home in Kingston, people insult Akúa by saying she has no broughtupsy.

Melissa: This story wrestles with sexuality, religion, family, and the meaning of home. A review said it’s ‘Vivid, emotionally intense, and unafraid of the dark.’ It’s ‘Broughtupsy’ by Christina Cooke.

Melissa: If you want to do a great reading project, you could pair this novel with ‘Butter Honey Pig Bread’ by Francesca Ekwuyasi. That’s a gorgeous book set in Lagos, Nigeria, that grapples with life stuff in a very rewarding way.

David: Derek B. Miller is an intriguing guy. According to Wikipedia, he works as an international affairs specialist in and around Washington. His resume is filled with phrases like ‘think tank’ and ‘United Nations’ and ‘adjunct senior fellow.’ He’s been doing that work for 30 years. If he tried to tell me about his career, it would be like explaining Norway to a dog. Sounds important. But I just don’t have the vocabulary.

David: But his hobby, I understand a little better. Derek Miller also writes novels. His stories tend to be crime stories that are layered with character development. He frequently adds in a bit of history. Reviewers say things like, ‘genre-defying’ and ‘page-tuning.’ He’s won several awards for his previous novels. The New York Times selected his last book, ‘How to Find Your Way in the Dark,’ as the Best Mystery Novel of 2021.

David: His latest book is out. It’s called ‘The Curse of Pietro Houdini.’ It’s set in Italy in World War 2. The novel starts with a fictional author’s note — which I always find promising. The first paragraph of that note says:

BEFORE THE AMERICANS BOMBED OUR abbey at Montecassino in 1944—the same abbey founded by St. Benedict in 529 AD—I stole three paintings from the Nazis / who were stealing them from the monks. I was fourteen years old. The story of how three Tiziano paintings from the Renaissance survived the war is therefore the story of how I survived and the story of how I survived is the story of Pietro Houdini and his curse.

David: This book combines coming-of-age, heist, historical novel, art, and a strong sense of Italy in the hands of an award-winning crime author. So, yeah. I’m in. Maybe you are, too. It just came out two weeks ago. It’s ‘The Curse of Pietro Houdini’ by Derek B. Miller.

David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

Melissa: If you’re listening to this show on the day it’s released, today is author and poet Judith Viorst’s 93rd birthday. She was born on February 2, 1931. She’s best known for her stellar children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I’ll have more to say about that later, but I want to tell you about Judith Viorst first.

Melissa: She was born in 1931 and grew up in Newark, New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University in 1952 and married her husband Milton in 1960. He was a journalist who specialized in the Middle East. They were married for 62 years until he died in 2022.

Melissa: In one of her interviews, she shared a great story about what kind of husband he was. They had recently moved to Washington, DC, together, where he worked for The Washington Post. She took a job as an editor at a science non-profit that also published books. And they asked her to write about the NASA space program. She said she went home to Milton, sobbing, saying, ‘I’ve finally gotten a chance to write a book, and they want me to write about space, and I don’t even know where space is!’ And Milton said, ‘Say yes — we’ll figure out where space is.’

Melissa: Judith still lives in Washington, DC. She’s written hundreds of magazine articles, two musicals, a novel, 18 children’s books, and nine books of poetry, including an age-related series that collects poems for every decade of her life, starting in her 20s. The most recent, published in 2019, is called ‘Nearing Ninety: And Other Comedies of Late Life.’ Whatever your age, she’s got you covered.

Melissa: But — as I said earlier, she’s best known for ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,’ first published in June 1972. It tells the story of a little boy named Alexander who is having a colossally bad day. His morning starts with getting gum stuck in his hair, tripping on his skateboard, and finding exactly zero toys in his cereal box. His day ends with a too-hot bath, pajamas he hates, and a burnt-out nightlight. In between, he suffers through lima beans and all manner of indignities — and finds no sympathy from his family or friends. It truly is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Melissa: And it’s one of the best books ever written. It perfectly captures the petty frustrations and disappointments that can destroy your mood, no matter how old you are. And there’s no sugary ending in which Alexander learns a lesson or things turn around. It’s a bad day, stem to stern, and ends with the recognition that some days are just like that.

Melissa: I heard this story at my grandmother’s house when I was, I don’t know, maybe 5 or 6? I have a sense memory of her reading it to me, tucked into her bed. She had a handful of pages torn out of a magazine. I distinctly remember the cute black-and-white illustrations and the very particular crinkle of the glossy magazine pages. But… I’ve done exhaustive internet searches to find any historical record that the story was published first in a magazine like Ladies Home Journal or Better Housekeeping. I have yet to find anything. So maybe that’s all my imagination filling in details? Anyway, it’s a nice memory, and I’m keeping it.

Melissa: I should also say that when I have one of those bad days that makes me feel like a grumpy toddler, the kind where nothing serious has gone wrong, but it’s just been bad … I like to read ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ to myself. I keep a copy on the bookshelf in our bedroom.

Melissa: Judith Viorst based the Alexander of the story on her son Alexander. She said he was ‘something of a klutz’ when he was little. He came home from school limping one day, complaining that he’d hurt his knee. When she asked if it happened playing soccer, he said, ‘No, story time.’

Melissa: She wrote this book to make him feel better about being the youngest and sometimes left behind. But when she read him the manuscript, he was furious. ‘Why are you giving me this bad day?’ But when she assured him his name would be on the cover in big letters, he relented.

Melissa: In June 2022, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book, NPR talked to the real Alexander. He said that he’s never actually gotten gum stuck in his hair but that his older siblings picked on him. And, he said, ‘I don’t think I had any direct hostility to lima beans.’

Melissa: The interviews Judith Viorst did with NPR are excellent and will make you feel good about the world. I’ll put links in the show notes so you can enjoy her life advice.

Melissa: And now I’ll leave you with a quote from her NPR chat in 2019 when she was 89: ‘Practically everything that I’ve written that is funny or joyful, I’ve probably lived through first with tears — and crying and bitching and moaning and carrying on. I am not your merry little lady bouncing chucklingly through life. But eventually I pull myself together.

Melissa: Visit for more on the books we talked about today and more on Namibia and links to all kinds of wonderful things about Judith Viorst.

David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


Top image courtesy of Ray Cruz, Illustrator.

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