All posts by Liz Petry

Liz Petry is a writer of nonfiction, an editor. She takes great joy in conducting a workshop for military veterans.

Ruin a Book

Google “Ruin a Book in One Letter” and a number of options surface from the Facebook beginnings. Christy brought the fun to the veterans’ writing group tonight. A lot of laughs and break from the serious business of writing memoirs. Here is my list, more or less in order with an expansion to magazines, TV, and movies:

  • As I Lay Lying
  • New Porker
  • I Know Why the Caged Bard Sings
  • Paws
  • The Sin Also Rises/Native Sin
  • The Nuked and the Dead
  • The Art of the Meal
  • Madame Ovary
  • The  Man in the Gray Flannel Shit
  • How Win Fiends and Influence People
  • Gin Smoke
  • Around the World in 800 Days
  • Gorillas in the Fist
  • Midsummer Night’s Dram
  • Paradise List/Paradise Last
  • The Kong and I
  • Ten Years Before the Mist
  • Moby Duck
  • The Great Gutsby
  • Muddlemarch

What I’m Reading Now (Invisible History of the Human Race)

Another in the series. And one I read and wrote about  months ago but never posted.

The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures bears no relationship to what it promised. The publishers tout Christine Kenneally’s work as a study of DNA, but the early pages contain a history of genealogy, full of anecdotes about the author’s family. The big issue it avoids because no one has answered is why? Why do people find digging into their past so intriguing, addictive even?

Kenneally does answer her question about how DNA and history shape us. As the descendant of a man deported to Australia from Ireland for stealing a handkerchief, she delves into the mystery about her ancestor. Who wouldn’t want to know more?

My personal answer to the larger question is because my ancestors are there, and they’re a mystery that needs solving to round out who I am. My mother wrote some excellent fiction around both sides of her family. We have the Lanes arriving in Hartford by boat from “Jersey” and the patriarch jumping to the dock, yelling, “Throw the baby down to me” when he thinks the boat is about to head back down river; there’s Bill Hod (Willis Howard James) who smuggled Chinese immigrants from Canada and ensured his own safety by wrapping them up and tying rocks to their feet in the event his boat was stopped. Who wouldn’t want to know more? So I dug in. Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters was the result.

On the other hand, my father’s story remains a mystery. Like Kenneally, he didn’t know who his grandfather was – well, he claimed not to know. I think he did but wasn’t allowed to speak of it. The mystery has yet to be solved. In the meantime, read Invisible History.

What I’m Reading Now

As regular readers know, John McPhee remains one of my favorite authors. He combines the best of subject matter and exploration of how he structures his work.

The descriptions in The Pine Barrens rival the best fiction while leading the reader on an edifying journey with the indomitable Fred Brown at the center of the constellation of friends and relatives. “A Roomful of Hovings” interlaces the story of the man who ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a stroll through the places where he lived and worked.

Now Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process combines earlier work with some excellent additions. The explanation for how he constructed Encounters with the Archdruid bears re-reading, if only to enjoy seeing the archdruid (the high priest of the Sierra Club) announce, “I’m chicken.”

The new material appears immediately, and it is worth the price of the book to read of McPhee’s experience working in an office next door to a massage parlor.

As solace to any writer struggling just the title Draft No. 4 offers hope. If the great Mr. McPhee has to go (at least) that long, why should the rest of us complain?

Miranda’s Sampler

Please forgive errors. My eyes still have traces of dilation drops from today’s visit to the eye doc.

The mail brought an enlightening piece of history over the weekend. To raise funds, the Connecticut Historical Society included an image of a sampler made by an eight-year-old African American girl. I recognized it immediately.

Miranda Robinson of Saybrook sewed it in 1839. She gave it to my grandmother, Bertha James Lane. It eventually landed in  my mother’s collection of antiques.

CHS name-checked both Anna Louise James and Ann Petry in discussing the provenance of the work. Mother and CHS genealogist Judith Johnson unearthed more history.

CHS acquired the sampler in 1990, and I wrote a story for the Middletown Press about it.  I remember searching for her grave in hip-deep weeds at the Upper Cemetery with photographer Cathy Avalone. She took a stellar picture of Miranda R. Anderson’s grave, surrounded by weeds. The story ran, and a week or so later I paid a return visit. The entire area had been mowed and tidied. Wish all photos produced such quick results.

CHS says, “This sampler is not just an example of a young girl’s needlework skills. It is a lens through which we can better understand our fascinating past.”

In digging around for more information, I found a note in Mother’s journal that my grandmother’s autograph collection included a signature from “Aunt Rannie.” Sure enough, it was the first one in the blue velveteen book.

The image falls short as a reproduction but looks good for age 132.


What I’m Watching Now (Fed Up)

Another in the series. Fed Up should do for the sugar industrial complex what earlier investigations did for tobacco and now are doing for the oil companies’ lies about their understanding of global warming.

The logline says, “An examination of America’s obesity epidemic and the food industry’s role in aggravating it.“ It’s a blockbuster collection of the evidence against sugar. It should be required watching for every parent, healthcare provider, and educator. There are wrenching stories here with images of children, ages 14 and 15, and some much younger. They each weigh more than 200 pounds and feel helpless to do anything about it. A look at their daily diets should inspire despair, except for the one family that committed to cooking meals at home. The entire family grew healthier.

Katie Couric and her team lay out the evidence in chilling detail: The campaign started to reduce fat in processed food because of its link to coronary artery disease. As one of the experts says food without fat tastes like crap, so the companies increased the sugar content. At the same time, the sugar lobby succeeded in preventing labels from listing daily value for sugar as it does for carbohydrates, proteins, and so forth. As often as I read labels, I’ve never noticed the blank following the designation of grams. The industry succeeded.

There is also an analysis of how the industry cultivates lawmakers to subsidize sugar beets, cane, and most especially corn. High fructose corn syrup is being demonized, but as the experts point out sugar is sugar is sugar. The body metabolizes it the same way, even the fake stuff. And it all contributes to unhealthy cravings for more – hence weight gain, diabetes, etc.

Two frightening pieces. No children had Type II diabetes in 1980. That’s why it was called “adult onset.” No wonder it’s described as an epidemic. The lobby got to Michelle Obama so that she backed off the message to cut sugar in her Let’s Move campaign and subbed in more exercise.

Most telling is the list of companies that declined interviews. It scrolls for what seems like many minutes. Credits from the merchants of death.

USPS Sloth

Another consumer complaint. An organization in central Connecticut mailed a first-class letter to California on August 10. It arrived on September 5. This journey of nearly a month is a clear indication that the infrastructure in this country is collapsing.

When I lived in Philadelphia in the 1980s, my parents and I would compare notes on how long it took a letter to arrive. Theirs almost always arrived within three to four days. Mine could take anywhere from two days to a week depending on where I mailed it. For whatever weird reason mailing it from the main post office seemed to add extra time. On occasion it would take more than a week but usually only during blizzards or other natural disasters. I do remember Mother writing a nasty letter, as only she could, to the postmaster general complaining about a letter that arrived mangled and much delayed. I think she received an abject letter of apology, which arrived promptly.

Regarding that letter to California, normal delivery now takes four or five days. The distance is about 3,000 miles. Trains take about three days. Leisurely driving a week, plus. I can only assume that USPS has reinstated the pony express and that  the horses collapsed.

From now on it’s FedEx even if it means driving twenty minutes to the office.

Gas Gouge

I bought gas the day the owners of the drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico announced shutdowns in anticipation of Harvey. This was days before the storm got anywhere near Texas, I paid $2.34 per gallon for regular, the same as a few weeks before.

On Sept. 1, the price around the area was plus or minus $2.60, compared to $2.51 nationally. That day I saw one station at $2.71 and an Exxon station gouging for $2.99.

The price at my station on Labor Day was $2.75, still below the Connecticut average of $2.84 but above the $2.64 nationally.

The stations raised their prices in anticipation of the shutdown, since the gas sitting in the Gulf could not possibly have gotten to Connecticut over night. Plus it would have been at the pre-Harvey price.

Can’t wait to see if prices drop, and if they do, how long it takes.

More Redux

  • It seems that I posted more than the usual number of weather related blogs, including this plea to friends and family in the path of Hurricane Matthew. More neon colors and more anxiety. So glad to hear from my cousin Elsie today that Abbeville didn’t get any water. She’s worried, though, about her sister and cousins  in Houston. I remember being incredulous when my environmental law professor said that Houston refused to have a zoning code because people thought it was a left-wing conspiracy. I had just assumed that at some point they had seen the light. But no.
  • Two great sessions on iCRV radio. The first previewed my appearance at Chester Village West, talking about the family letters and the film. The second featured some of the veterans from the writing workshop.
  • My pleas to vote are even more critical now. The way to flatten the waves of racism and xenophobia spreading around the country is to start on the local level. Once again I will cast a ballot in November for those who couldn’t.
  • Still missing the dear little feline . Simon’s Cat compensates to some degree, but I have to ration, otherwise the entire day goes to the cats.
  • The saga of my recovery from surgery (multiple posts) continues, but I decided to spare folks more details.
  • Of course Isis and Simon’s cat weren’t the only felines. I still laugh out loud at I Could Pee on This.


This is the first redux since May 2016, so it’ll appear in several installments.

  • Hachi no longer has the same appeal. It’s OK for take-out, but the waitresses greet every request with “no problem,” and they think a glass of wine is about three ounces.
  • No more Dave Robicheaux novels. These mysteries feature the Cajun deputy sheriff in the New Iberia Parish. I was reading them to learn about my father’s hometown. A frightening and disgusting article in the New York Times Magazine brought that to the end. Published February 12, 2017, “The Preacher and the Sheriff” told the story in the lead-in: ”A young black man, hands shackled behind him, is shot to death – and the police say he killed himself. The resulting investigation has pitted the victim’s father, a Baptist minister, against the most powerful man in New Iberia, La.”
  • The Fire This Time covered three blog posts (Aug. 9,  Aug. 16, Aug. 18 ). It is even more relevant now than it was a year ago.
  • Hurricane/TS Harvey has me flashing back to the night I got trapped in my car about a half-mile from home. (“Farm Hill Road Whitecaps” and “Aftermath”) Can’t imagine being stuck for a day or more.
  • Still missing Luis Carlos Montalván and Tuesday (Sept. 2, May 19, 2017)
  • To end on an upbeat note, I’m plotting a return trip to Maine, a glorious place to spend a weekend in New England.