Whotcha reading?

61NR514KCRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So, although there is some significant messing around in my schedule right now, I’m also doing plenty of reading (naturally), and when I don’t have my nose working through the reading-through-the-whole-AP-style-book project, I’ve also been reading some fun stuff as well.

I tackled Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (Chandra Prasad, ed.) another collection of short stories, this time from the perspective of living a multiracial experience, and this was pretty good. It seemed a stronger collection than my earlier short story experience, and it was so interesting (to me) that the one common concern for the authors in this collection was the life-long question of identity. If one is of a multiracial family, where does one really belong? It seems to be a very frequent and real challenge for people who have different parents from different ethnicity groups, primarily because (I think) people feel like they have to pick “sides” in terms of a racial identity.

So, some great stories in this collection from writers with all kinds of backgrounds, POC and otherwise. I enjoyed this read.

51RcFw8xmTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I did a fast (and very funny) read of Nina Stibbe’s novel, A Man at the Helm (2014). Such a hilarious book, primarily because the author seems to have lived a lot of the same experiences as I had as a child, and so she cracks me up. I’ve enjoyed her other book, Love Nina (2013), a fiction (?) collection of letters that she sent to her parents when she was doing her first nanny job, and there’s one more fiction title out there somewhere that I’m going to track down. I just love Stibbe’s writing. (Ooh. Just found another  title (An Almost Perfect Christmas (2017)…) I’ll add it to the list…)

I tried to read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise but wow. It was so confusing, and even though I got about halfway through the book, I still hadn’t the foggiest idea who some of the characters were, so I admitted defeat. Strange as I’ve loved Morrison’s other work: Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), but there you go. Can’t have a home run every time.  (Actually, this title (Paradise) was the last title in the Beloved trilogy (consisting of Beloved, Jazz and Paradise), so I’m not quite sure why I found it to be so confusing… It might have been my Monkey Mind to blame.  🙂 )

And then, non-fiction-wise, I’m close to finishing By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a non-fiction read of work by Luis Alberto Urrea (whose work I tend to adore as can be seen here (review of The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004], here (review of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexico Border) [NF 1993} and here (review of novel Into the Beautiful North [F 2009]). This particular title is about the time Urrea spent getting to know the people (and the society) who end up living in this huge rubbish dump on the border of Mexico and the U.S. near San Diego.

Stuck between two different countries and with no way out, Urrea shows how hard their lives can be, as well as how they can find some small joy throughout their time. It’s an astonishing read as you know these folks have the same goals of life as anyone else: good health, worthy employment, happy relationships but how to achieve those goals when you are the poorest of the poor? What would be your escape?

The good thing about Urrea’s writing is that he doesn’t write down about these families, and he doesn’t pity them. He treats everyone with equal respect and although their lives may be very very hard, there is no sentimental approach to his descriptions of their day-to-day activities. It’s very neutral and balanced, and I really appreciated that.

So that’s the summer so far… I hope you’re having an awesome summer as well. 🙂

Summer Catch Up

catch_up I’m really enjoying this faculty summer schedule and am having a good time doing… well, not much really. I am auditing a class to renew what I know (and don’t know) about news writing (particularly with regard to AP), and although it might sound a bit dry, I am really enjoying it. Since I’m auditing it, I’m not doing it for a grade which is very freeing in many ways. I just sit at the back of the classroom, be quiet and take notes. It’s a fun way to learn….

As part of that class, I’m reading my way through The AP Style Book (which is the gold standard for journalistic writing and is similar to reading a huge dictionary). This sounds like it would be an arduous and boring task, but it’s actually not as reading the AP Stylebook is more like studying for a very particular game of trivia in some ways. I’m also learning a lot (which is extra fun).

So the mornings are usually taken up by class with a lot of homework (since it’s an abbreviated summer school class which means it’s very fast-paced).

The afternoons are usually filled with going to the gym, doing the class homework, and then reading (more deets to come) before the DH comes home after work and we start to do supper etc.

And – drum roll please. I put the last piece into that challenging jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working on, and here’s the pic of the final version. (I’m finding jigsaw puzzles to be very addictive!):

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The Best American Short Stories 1999 – Amy Tan (ed.)

file-3I’m usually not the biggest fan of short stories, but I’m making an effort to read them because so many people actually do love them and so I’m trying to see if perhaps my (limited) view could be swayed somewhat. I could be wrong. (Shock. Gasp. 🙂 )

It’s hard to go astray with any of the titles in the book series, “The Best American FILL-IN-THE-BLANK”, usually published each year and edited by a notable author who curates all the selections inside each edition. There are books that celebrate travel writing (see 2000 [Bill Bryson], 2011 [Sloane Crosley] and 2016 [Andrew McCarthy*]), science and nature writing, short stories, and others and although they have a tendency to be heavily rich white male in their offerings (through design or accident), you can usually steer your way through that by your choice of who the book editor is. For example, this one was edited by Amy Tan which, to me, ups the odds of there being a more diverse selection of writings inside.

(It’s not always true to form, and there are some (white male) editors who choose a diverse selection and vice versa, but generally speaking, the older the edition the more likely it is to be a white European-centric volume.)

All that to say, I enjoyed this anthology and Amy Tan’s selections. As with any collected volume of works, there are going to be some hits and misses, but on the whole, this was a good selection of writing and a good read. Tan has curated a collection that’s pretty evenly split between male and female authors, but for some reason, it’s heavily swayed towards white people (16 out of 21 stories had white authors).

This has got me wondering whether this emphasis on white authors is primarily because most of the stories that the guest editor in question is going to read (or find) are those from authors who have already published their work (in literary journals and/or similar).

This seems to be common as many authors are (or have been) caught up in the engine of grad school writing programs (the “publish or perish” syndrome) — students are rewarded by high grades from profs (majority of whom are traditionally older white males) who think “this student writes just like me and it’s awesome!” So it’s like a vicious cycle of some kind and since grades are almost everything in grad school, no one wants to rock their own boat too hard so they stick to the “same old same old” as it’s the safest way to get through class…

Hear me out on this theory (and it’s only a theory): For most people, going to grad school is only possible, really, if you have some money/time to spare, and so I’m wondering if the low diversity numbers are due to the fact that disproportionately high numbers of POC simply do not have the luxury of that choice to attend a grad school with prestigious authorial faculty (even more $$$) and so on up the educational pipeline. Poorly-funded school systems also tend to disproportionately impact minority and under-represented kids (which means that the kids might not have the same academic or other support system)…

I don’t know, but just thought it was interesting to ponder for a while. What do you think?

Back to the book: Diversity-wise, this anthology included work from a Dominican-American, someone who is Chinese-American, an Indian-American, a professorial type from Tibet (now living in the US), and a guy from Bosnia (now also living in the US).) Perhaps I should be wise to remember that the title of the series is the “Best American….” !!

Of the stories that I liked, I thoroughly enjoyed the work of Lorrie Moore (whose work I will be searching for more to read), and then I thought that the others were all a bit same-y in the end, although they were a nice same-y.

Therein lies the biggest problem for me with regard to short stories: since most tend to be generated either during or after going through grad school writing programs, the authors are taught to write in a certain way to get the “A” grades, that certain way being determined by the students’ professors who also have previously also spent their time in the grad school engine and so it’s a big self-feeding circle in the end.

I could be wrong with this pondering, and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the read. I did, especially when I was exposed to very different authors than my usual choices. Perhaps that was what was challenging: that some of these stories were very different in both structure and form than my typical fare. And yet, I’m usually ok with post-modern endings, inventive structural decisions and other experimental offerings. That I finished the whole book would support that I enjoyed the majority of the read. I’m just contemplating what my expectations were in contrast with the final product.

Whatever the reason(s), in the end this was a thoughtful read that led me down plenty of other rabbit holes on-line. It’s always good to learn, and this title certainly helped to expose me to different authors and approaches.

I wonder if you (as the reader) have a similar experience of “same-y” when you read a book of short stories all written by the same author. (Toddles off to the TBR shelves to see what else I have…)

(This title is off the TBR pile. Go me. 🙂 )

  • The very same Andrew McCarthy who acted in John Hughes’ inimitable Breakfast Club from the 1980’s. He’s all growed up now. 🙂 )

Playing around…

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Source: Shutterstock

Summer is here in every way, shape and form now we are in June. It’s fairly common to have multiple days of more than a hundred degrees as the high temperature, and I’m hoping that the oncoming weeks will bring us some more rain. (We live in a semi-arid desert region and most of the rain tends to fall around now. However, climate change (even the one invented by China 🙂 ) seems to be impacting that, so we’ll see. ETA: We had rain!!

The laid-back summer vibe continues apace, and it’s a very nice pace indeed. What have I been up to? Well, frankly, not much, and that’s fine with me.

Reading, naturally, has been happenin’ but since I’m spending a lot of time away from the computer screen, I think I’m just going to do some briefer round-up summary reviews instead of the in-depth ones. You won’t mind, will you? 🙂

I have been focusing more on the TBR pile, trying to make some inroads on that (**dry cough**), and I had a fun read of Famous American Plays of the ’40s (Henry Hewes, ed.). I’m not a drama expert in any way but I do rather like reading (and seeing plays) and I’ve had pretty good luck with this series (Famous American Plays of NAME the DECADE). Admittedly, the selections do tend to be very white and male, but you need to start somewhere, right? (Another good collection of plays (this time the 1950s/early 60s) is Six American Plays for Today edited by Bennet Cerf, in case you’re looking for something with variety.)

So this anthology of plays from the 1940s contained the following titles:

  • Home of the Brave – Arthur Laurents (1945)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller (1947)
  • Lost in the Stars – Maxwell Anderson (1949)
  • The Member of the Wedding – Carson McCuller (1950).

Three out of four were memorable, so that’s not too bad considering that I was familiar with approximately zero of these works of drama, and I enjoyed the read for the most part. Good find at the old FoL sale one year. I think I have a couple more of these titles (Famous Plays of the DECADE), so will pull them off the shelf at some point. I’m trying to make them last though. 🙂

(Linked with plays and drama, we also went to a showing of Ripcord (by David Lindsay-Abaire) at our local am-dram community theater. I love going to these things…Incredibly unlikely that I will ever get up on stage, but I have a good time from the audience seats watching others who are braver than I go up on stage.)

I also hit up a YA poetry book, Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) which was great. If you have any younger readers who quake at the thought of poetry, this would be a good introduction as the poetry is approachable and in free verse. It describes the childhood and adolescence of a young girl growing up in the north and with family in the south. Excellent read. Woodson has written quite a bit of YA stuff, so more to chase down at some point.

Picked up a more light-hearted title called The Diary of Hendrick Groen Aged 83 3/4 by an anonymous author. This is rather like an OAP version of Bridget Jones’ Diary – epistolary, funny, dry sense of humor. It tracks a year of OAP Groen as he moves into an old people’s home and makes friends and has adventures. Pretty funny. (It’s a Dutch book, I believe. Same sort of vein as A Man Called Ove, if you’ve read that one.)

Read a rather oblique and graduate-school-mill book by Amit Chaudhuri (2000), Freedom Song. Actually, this title (Freedom Song) contains three different novels inside its pages, but I only read one. As I didn’t really connect with the characters in this first story, I’ve ripped off the bandage and moved the book to the donate pile without reading the other two selections. (Woo hoo. Another off the TBR pile and out of the house!)

I think that those are most of the titles I’ve read since last I reviewed a book on this here ol’ blog, so I think that brings us up to speed now. More reading to come, no doubt…

And remember that jigsaw puzzle that I was working on a few days ago? Here is its most recent progress photograph:

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DH describes me as a crackhead in terms of just how addicting these puzzles can be. Oh my….

 

Things on Cowboy’s Head

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Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day nine years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

“No more teachers, no more school…”

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(That title may be somewhat obscure, but it is a reference to the song by Alice Cooper which details the delights of reaching summer holidays for schoolchildren. If you need a memory prod, try it here. It’s not the Glee one. 🙂 )

With May also under our belts, it means that the university’s semester is completed, grades are in and now, for the first time, I get to enjoy (and appreciate) faculty summer. I’m fortunate to have a contract which states that I only have to go to the office one day/week (for some meetings, really – the lifeblood of the professional life). And so, the next three months seem to be full of promise and opportunity. (The only time that I’ve ever had such a stretch of free time was during unemployment, and you just can’t enjoy it then.)

Plans for the summer include auditing a class for Summer I (if it makes with enough students), teaching a class for Summer II, and then it will be the autumn and time for classes to start up once more for a brand new school year. I have a writing conference to go to in July, and probably a trip somewhere sometime with my mum and sister, but there’s mostly free time for me to with as I wish. What an awesome present to have!

I’ve been reading, naturally. I seemed to have hit a bit of a reader’s block towards the end of the semester, but that is now sorted out, and I’ve popped to the library to pick up one or five alluring titles. I also owe you guys a couple of reviews… In the meantime, here is my loot from the library:

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It’s good to have choices… 

Victoria and Abdul – Shrabani Basu (2010) NF about a friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a servant from India who was waiting tables at a celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. (Lots of scandal, apparently.)

Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience – Chandra Prasad (ed.) (2006) F. I’ve tried this one, but it didn’t stick. Maybe another time…

Diana: In Search of Herself – Sally Bedell Smith (1999) NF. (This was related to my viewing the Royal wedding the other day…) I’ve read a couple of other titles (The Queen and Prince Charles) by this author so hoping this one will be as good.

Mankiller: A Chief and her People – Wilma Mankiller (1993) NF. Mankiller is (was?) the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and this is described as an autobiography of the tribe itself.

Paradise – Toni Morrison (1997) F. (Loved Morrison’s other reads so far: Jazz, Beloved, Sula…)

Extraordinary American Indians – Susan Avery and Linda Skinner (1992) NF. This is a juvenile read but I was looking for a general overview of First Peoples in the US, and this title came up.

And of course, I have all these great titles from which to choose, so what do I read? Something on my Kindle: Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Noah is the host of The Daily Show and has an interesting story to tell. His childhood was pretty rough when he was growing up in South Africa, and although he’s not the best writer in the world, he has a good story to tell.

Oh, and then I was in the mood for some short stories and trawled my TBR to find the 1999 edition of the Best American Short Stories (edited by Amy Tan). Enjoying these, but I think it’s best if I don’t read them one after the other. I need to take a break from these or they become a bit same-y when they’re really not. (My fault. I accept it.)

And we saw the sequel to Deadpool yesterday. My advice: save your money. :-}

And in the afternoons when it’s actually too hot to go outside and be productive, I have started a jigsaw puzzle. Fun times!

puzzle

ETA: Oh dear god. This is a hard one. What was I thinking? 

Cold Weather Reads for the Hot Season (at least here in Texas!)

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The temperatures here in West Texas are creeping up and have hit the typical numbers now, which means hot, hot, and more hot. I’m not the biggest fan of these never-ending hot and dry days, but luckily for me, I don’t have to work in the cotton fields or live in a house without air-conditioning. 🙂

It still doesn’t take the fact away that the days here can get really warm, and so I thought it might help keep us cool if I put together a reading list of books that feature cold weather in some way. (Cold and wet would be even better! You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the girl, as they say.)

So, here are a few suggested titles from both the blog and my TBR that might do the trick for cooling down your internal thermometer:

Antarctica would be a good place to start, so how about a read of the riveting adventure of Captain Scott and his fatal expedition at the turn of the twentieth century? Apsley Cherry-Garrard has The Worst Journey in the World, a two-volume diary that details almost every step of the way and is an adventure classic that is hard to put down. You can almost shiver in sympathy at these poor men who follow an almost despotic leader across iceburgs with completely inadequate equipment and training. (Volume l and Volume II). Another angle would the biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard called simply Cherry (TBR).

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If your goal is general survival, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (TBR) as it looks like it has some useful tips based on research, but if you’d rather look at a slightly warmer (and more civilized) trip across some wilderness, you could try Mary Bosanquet’s Saddlebags to Suitcases, where she details her time crossing some of Canada on horseback back in the 1930’s/1940’s. It’s still cool, but more summertime cool.

If you’re interested in history and the pioneer life (since it can get pretty cold in a log cabin or sod house), Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West looks good (TBR), and I know that Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993) is excellent.

If you’d prefer to look at pioneer things through a  family saga perspective, you could always read the classic, Giants of the Earth by O.E. Rolvagg (1927) which has some cold parts of it. (Clearly, since the story is placed on the northern plains of the U.S. in a log cabin…)

Speaking of living a domestic life for pioneers, another good read (this time a how-to book) is The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher Stowe and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), an excellent guide for first-time explorers which tells you how to survive both the hot and the cold if you’re building a new life and a log cabin on the plains.

db035d32e6865b0673e873457270f2c5Another good pioneer perspective (including a difficult winter or two), this time from a very cheerful and optimistic newcomer, is The Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart (1914) or you could return to old faithfuls such as The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940). Or even the NF book, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin (2004) (TBR) which tells the tale of how a group of children got lost during a blizzard in America’s heartland back in the 1880’s.

Speaking of bleak weather, if you’d like to travel with a man and a boy during the aftermath of a tremendous event, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as unrelenting a read as the bad weather and bad luck for these characters. (That’s a toughie to read, IMHO.)

On the other hand, if your plans are more “travel-around-the-world-with-servants” style, and you need some non-fiction to know *exactly* what to pack, try the Victorian travel book, The Art of Travel by Francis Galton (1854) . (So. Much. Stuff. But that’s ok as you’re not the one carrying it. :-} )

DQWqwPVXkAAFMF5Perhaps your plans include a journey via the Himalayas, so you could have an enjoyable journey with Michael Palin when he went there: Himalaya (2004) is a book about his travels there one year.

Another true adventure book that gets a bit cold is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (TBR) which follows the truly amazing journey of seven prisoners of war who escape from a Soviet labor camp and travel across Siberia, China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India in 1941. (Also the related film tells their story and is called “The Long Way Back” (2010) if you’re more of a film buff.)

And if you’d rather take a look at the Russian side of the world, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968) is a riveting quick read about how one Polish family survives as prisoners in Siberia around the start of WWII.

If you’d like to get away from almost everything, I’ve heard it gets a bit cold out in space, so you could always refer to Chris Hadfield’s lovely book about his life as an astronaut, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life (2013)… (or Mary Roach’s pretty hilarious Packing for Mars…)

For a rather different take on life on English moors, try The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959) , a collection of short stories by one of the more recognizable names of The Angry Young Men movement in mid-century England.

Or you could venture out onto the cold and rainy moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)  or perhaps another of the many Sherlock Holmes titles. (They usually involve some cold places of one kind or another.)

More cold-weather crime is via Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, a collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. And don’t forget Dame Agatha Christie who has some cold reads, Murder on the Orient Express being one of the more obvious choices.

You might prefer to go more on the domestic route with some dreary weather, so perhaps The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1954) or a quick WWII domestic read of 1939’s Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struthers). You know what? The gritty Irish trilogy that starts with The Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien, 1962) or maybe the trilogy that starts with The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks (also published in the 1960s) might hit the spot since that’s rather a cold book (re: temperature) at times. There’s also a sequel to that as well: The Backward Shadow (1970) and that’s followed by the final title, Two is Lonely (TBR). (These titles are also known as the “Jane Graham” series…) Just sayin’. Sometimes you want dreary, amiright?

For a snowy and slightly scary story, don’t forget that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)  has some chilly moments in it as well, as does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896).

Peter Hessler has written several NFs about life in rural China, so perhaps start with River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze about his time teaching in a small rural town, although there are several titles from which to choose. It has some cold scenes in it.

Similar (in that both places can be cold) but different would be a read of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010) of life for the typical person in North Korea. Brr. Hungry, poor and cold? No thank you.

If you’re not quite sure where exactly you’d like to go to get cooler, any of the prestigious America’s Best… volumes can take you almost anywhere you’d like, with travel writing collected and edited by a variety of authors (including Bill Bryson (2000) , Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), William Vollman (2012)   etc.)  These collections typically contain a mix of climates as part of their writing selections (although they can sometimes lack diversity in the author selections)…

Finally, for the more science-y folks, you could learn more about the amazing snowflake and see some stunning photography, in The Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrechrt and Patricia Rasmussen (2003).  This title even makes some parts of physics comprehensible and fascinating… (And that’s me saying that from the perspective of dropping physics and chemistry when I was 12 years old. If I can understand it from my non-science background, it’s probable that you will as well. Plus – great photography.)

So, there you go. Some wintery reads for you if you’re stuck with hot temperatures. Hope that helps (or at least guides the way for) you if you’re sweltering…!

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Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….