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.

Effective Butterfly

Price in 1925: 15 cents

The New Yorker celebrates its birthday every year with some variation of Eustace Tilley, who appeared on the original cover. I discussed it in “New York,” “New York.

Three years ago Kadir Nelson created “Eustace Negro,” my favorite version to date.

Now Mr. Negro has a rival in elegance and stature. Malika Favre says she tries to keep her images simple. While “The Butterfly Effect” may have simple lines it delivers a complex message – Eustace is now black and female and better dressed than her male counterparts.

Note the price: $8.99.

Go online to watch the gif, which hints at how this butterfly may have started the serial tornados of #metoo and the cascade of firings. Her observer may be invoking the uncertainty principle, leading to consequences that none of us can foresee.



What I’m Watching Now (My Next Guest…)

I never saw an entire David Letterman show until last night. During his run from the ‘’80s through 2015, I was either working or asleep because I had to be at work early. The snippets I saw did not impress: Top 10 got old fast. Stupid pet tricks were excruciating. Paul Shaffer’s talents seemed painfully wasted.

So it was with some hesitation that I decided to watch My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Figuring that President Barack Obama could redeem pretty much any situation, I decided to risk it.

The final product was better than expected. Letterman needs to lose that beard but otherwise comported himself well, except for his ungracious rebuff when Obama tried to ask questions. While their conversation offered some insights, the most moving sections involved Letterman’s walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis. The skillful interweaving of Lewis’s reaction to the current political situation with footage of the assault by police officers and other images of the movement gave the “My Next Guest” a gravitas that it would otherwise have lacked.

Letterman revealed a great deal about himself when he said that he and his buddies caught a boat to the Caribbean where they could drink legally instead of participating in the Selma march. He essentially asked why. Obama was too polite to say because Letterman didn’t have enough invested in the outcome – white privilege on display in a graphic way.

Even though I found the program engaging, I won’t return unless he interviews Oprah or Margaret Atwood.

What I’m Reading Now (Out of the Briars)

This is not an image of the edition I read. It’s available free online.

When my friend Jesse Nasta visited the veteran’s writing group, he recommended a book that I’m certain is unfamiliar to most people. A.H. (Alexander Hemitage) Newton published Out of the Briars in 1910. Its subtitle explains both its obscurity and its unique place in the world: “An Autobiographical Sketch of the Twenty-Ninth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers” is the only narrative written by a member of the U.S. Colored Troops to serve from this state. It reinforces my view that if more history were taught from these primary sources, more students would appreciate it.

Reverend Newton (he became an AME Zion pastor after the war) opens with his early life as the son of an enslaved father and free mother in New Bern, North Carolina. Anyone who believes that the life of free blacks in the ante-bellum South was easy will receive an education. And anyone who thinks that black folks, even young ones, acquiesced to whites will be enlightened.

The story of Reverend Newton’s arrival in the North and participation in the 29th form the most captivating portions of the text. The privation suffered by the men – lack of water and food, worn out clothing, may be familiar in a general way, but Reverend Newton makes it vivid.

From his youth, he regretted his lack of education, though his thoughtfulness and deep understanding appear to have compensated until he was able to rectify the situation – and did he ever. Once the war ended, he set about in earnest to learn in a major way, culminating at age 70 with a Ph. D.

Once he learned to write he began to keep a journal and the book is the fruit of that years-long labor. His fellow soldiers turned to him after the war to bolster their own memories. Every unit should have such a person.

He helped establish and build up AME Zion churches in the South despite ferocious attacks from white terrorists. Later he gave time and energy and money to churches in New Jersey and environs, joining his efforts with a number of illustrious men who rose to the upper echelons of the ministry. Despite these successes, Reverend Newton suffered personal tragedy with the loss of two wives and his children.

The autobiography does suffer from excessive name checking and loses momentum after the war ends, but it is nevertheless engrossing and should be required reading in American history courses.

What I’m Reading Now (Complete Poetry)

Blog is back at last, following a month of work and flu and who knows what.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote (rough translation), “One is not what one writes but what one has read.” Today I feel better defined – humble and enlightened to read my friend Thelma’s birthday gift of Maya Angelou’s The Complete Poetry.

Some of these poems are familiar and bring joy once more. “Still I Rise” with those lines “’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/Pumping in my living room.”

And of course the elegy addressed to “All the World’s Citizens, Who Lost a Friend When President Nelson Mandela Died.” Through the magic of her words, she draws the peoples of South Africa together with those of us in the States who watched, inspired, as he walked out of prison and healed the suffering of a nation. “Even here in America/We felt the cool/Refreshing breeze of Freedom/When Nelson Mandela took/The seat of the presidency…”

Many others in this 308-page collection are new to me: “Song for the Old Ones,” which opens with “My Fathers sit on benches,” continues: “There in those pleated faces/I see the auction block/the chains and slavery’s coffles/the whip and lash and stock.” Stark images stand juxtaposed against the wisdom of the elders.

“Willie” refers to the uncle that she describes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There, young Maya’s grandmother hides the disabled Willie under piles of onions to protect him from a lynch mob. In the poem, he’s “Crippled and limping, always walking lame,” but he says, “ ‘I may cry and I will die,/But my spirit is the soul of every spring,/Watch for me and you will see/That I’m present in the songs that children sing.’ ” He didn’t have much of a voice in the essay. Here, It is at once comforting and revealing that here he speaks with the voice of hope and uplift.

I started reading the poems in the order presented. Now I’m just dipping in and out and shall cherish this collection for many years to come. If I am what I read, then I’m filled with the harsh reality of suffering and with sublime beauty and grace.

What I’m Reading Now (Novel Habits of Happiness)

As mentioned, I loaded up the iPad with books before I left for Japan and managed to read some en route and upon return. The Novel Habits of Happiness is another of the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. In this case it was not terribly memorable, including the title, maybe because it bore little resemblance to the contents of the book.

This one gets off to a slow, slow start. Then it feels rushed, not up to the quality of the earlier mysteries. Isabel agrees to help a woman whose young son believes he lived with another family and needs to goes back to them even though he’ll be dead. Also, Isabel’s niece Cat, who has a new lover in pretty much every book, shows up with one who upsets Isabel more than usual, despite the calming effects of her husband, an earlier Cat lover. And the men who tried to kick her off the Review of Applied Ethics are back in town. Too much action for a mere 189 pages.

There is one major redeeming quality here. The descriptions of the bleak beauty of the highlands and the Ardnamurchan peninsula suit the work – and my mood.

What I’m Reading Now (Twelve Tribes of Hattie)

Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been on my to-read list for years, and I’m sorry I waited so long. Early in the novel fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, her mother, and sisters flee the backwoods of Georgia as part of the Great Migration, landing in Philadelphia. Even as she marvels that black people are not subjected to the brutality of southern racists, she watches her first-born twins die of poverty. As the years pass, she bears nine more children but never recovers from that early loss.

Each subsequent chapter tells the story of one child. Those narratives could stand alone, but together they show the pain and occasional triumph of people who began life with more than two strikes against them.

It was odd to read of a place at once so familiar and so foreign. Philadelphia had changed a great deal by the time I arrived fifty years later, but the neighborhood where Hattie struggled might as well have been the same with more cars and people.

The most vivid of the characters is Six. Called to preach as a youngster, he dazzles – especially the women – and follows in the footsteps of many men of the cloth where a chasm yawns between words and action.

contains among the best descriptions I’ve encountered of the Vietnam War experience, alternating with a clear representation of the disintegration of a marriage.

Again my only reservation had nothing to do with the contents but with the clunkiness and inflexibility of reading ebooks. I find the iBooks friendlier than Kindle but still nothing to paper and ink held in the hand.

Cats and Their Writers

“The Cat in a Ruff”

Often when I am in despair – a frequent state these days – I turn to Simon’s cat. Actually to the pitch-perfect videos of the way Simon’s cat and attendant kitten maintain ultimate control over Simon, the house, and all surroundings. Favorites are the dirt tracked in just after Simon has cleaned and the mayhem when he’s sick in bed.

This blog post offered much more of substance, demonstrating  that cats have over the years become support, muse, inspiration for writers. Some are familiar — Poe, Twain, Eliot.

The impetus for this post came from “The Cat in a Ruff,” which my friend Christy Billings bought at the Mark Twain House. Here’s my favorite Twain/cat story. He posted a sign after a theft of silverware, presumably sterling.

To the Next Burglar: There is nothing but plated ware in this house now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining-room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise, it disturbs the family…

Cats were so much a part of Papa H’s brand that I met the some of the descendants of the clowder at Hemingway House in Cuba in the 1980s.

Other cat lovers were a surprise, mostly because I don’t know much about the authors. The drawing of Edward Lear’s makes him look like a jolly ancestor Simon’s cat. Every cat owner will appreciate Lost Cat.

Ann Petry should be on that list. She had cats from the time she was a little kid and wrote a book for children, The Drugstore Cat, about a kitten who has trouble controlling his temper.  Some publisher needs to reissue this book.

Later feline residents were Mehitabel (named after the cat in Archy and Mehitabel) and Tobermory, Toby for short, named for the talking cat in the Saki story. Later my cat Leo took up brief residence when I was transitioning from one apartment to another. He gained four pounds — a quarter of his body weight under Mother’s TLC.

William Burroughs, Edward Gorey, Sylvia Plath, and Truman Capote should join to the legions of cat loving writers. May their cohort increase.

And even though he didn’t belong to one particular scribe, Firbank inspired many writers and readers as he presided over the Book Trader  when it thrived at Fourth and South in Philadelphia before the area became Gap-i-fied.

What I’m Reading Now (Song of the Lion)

As mentioned, it was a thrill to learn that Tony Hillerman’s daughter had continued writing his series about the Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and that Anne Hillerman had added a lead female character.

Song of the Lion has Lieutenant Leaphorn, the more assimilated of the original pair, retired in name but keeping his hand in as much as the effects of a stroke will let him. Sergeant Chee has married fellow Navajo Officer Bernadette Manuelito who takes the lead here.

The action in Song of the Lion starts with a literal bang as a car bomb explodes, killing a man, outside the biggest high school basketball game of the year at Shiprock High School. Manuelito, who is smart and efficient and just as good an officer as the others of course must battle sexism along with the racism of the white state cops and FBI as they all investigate what they believe is an attempt to derail a mediation over a proposed mega development in the Grand Canyon.

Anne Hillerman continues the themes of her father’s works – the uses and abuses of the environment, conflict between Hopi and Navajo, the latter group’s need to spread out across the land even when it might belong to someone else, reverence for the elders, and the need to maintain traditions.

At times, the voices didn’t feel as clear as they were in The Blessing Way and Talking God, but the narrative arc is just as engrossing. And the dénouement left me gasping.

Mostly, though, it was a pleasure to be reading about a culture that values nature and the wisdom of age while exploring Japan, another culture that does the same.


Double Thank You

We interrupt the “What I’m Reading Now” series to post this thank you to the artist and writer who helped to usher in  the new edition of Harriet Tubman Conductor on the Underground Railroad. It  is addressed to artist Kadir Nelson and writer Jason Reynolds.


The new edition of Harriet Tubman Conductor on the Underground Railroad arrived today. After I gasped for joy, I cried — because of the glorious image on the cover and because Mother and Mrs. Tubman are not here to appreciate it. Then a voice said, “The ancestors know.”

Your contributions are doubly appreciated. Of all of Mother’s works, I considered Harriet Tubman “my” book. It was the first one she wrote after I was born,  so it has been part of my life since I was a small girl. She dedicated it to me. In short order it became and has remained the most popular of everything she wrote, reissued and excerpted.

Kadir, when I learned that you were to create the cover art, it was clear that Mother and Mrs. Tubman would approve. Your Eustace Tilley was already my favorite — on the cover of a magazine that my parents read faithfully until their deaths. Your Obama portrait joins my list of favorite works of art. It is at once heartbreaking and uplifting, more so all these months later.

Jason, I confess that YA works are not top of mind these days, but when I mentioned your name to a librarian friend, she raved, saying that your writing was stellar and that your target audience adored your books. I nabbed All American Boys, the only title available and  concur wholeheartedly with my friend’s assessment. Your foreword to Harriet Tubman, with your personal story of discovery adds much to the global message of Mrs. Tubman’s struggle and victory.

Thank you both for giving new and meaningful life to “my” book.