Victoria: A Life – A.N. Wilson (2014)

Having been immersed in watching the PBS series, Victoria, this Spring, I became pretty interested in learning about this particular monarch and so, prowling my TBR shelves (go me!) I came across this thick volume about Victoria and dug right on in. 

First of all, I think that this detailed biography will only check the boxes for someone who is REALLY interested in Victoria. It goes into a lot of detail about the politics of the time, and so if you’re not really into that, I’m not sure that this will be the read for you. I had to really concentrate to stay alert through some of these parts, so I’m thinking other people may have the same problem. (There may or may not have been some skimming at times.)

Having said that though, Wilson has done a good (and thorough) job of giving the reader the details of Victoria’s life and times, so now (after 642 pages), I feel confident in having a much more thorough overview of Victorian times and their tubby little queen. 🙂

Wilson reviews the entirety of Victoria’s life, from birth to death, and generally speaking, it was a great read if you’re wanting to learn more about this enigmatic monarch. Wilson is a scholar and a biographer, but in spite of this, he still manages to sprinkle humor and wit throughout the book which brings a sparkle to an otherwise pretty dry read.

To be honest, the only really dry bits were towards the middle of the book (and her life) when Albert dies and when Victoria chooses to remove herself from public life and events for approximately 30 years or so. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) She does, eventually, get back into things, but it takes quite a while for her to do this, and in the meantime, peeps are pretty mad at her, enough so there were rumblings of England turning into a republic (sans Queen). Her return was rather in the nick of time.

Wilson also addresses the significant others in Victoria’s life post-Albert, including John Brown and the Munshi. (See below for links to other related reads you might be interested in.)

Queen Victoria (on horse) with her “friend” (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more…. ) John Brown
up in Balmoral in Scotland.

I can’t blame them, really, as Victoria was hiding in her various palaces and only doing the minimum duties while she nursed her never-ending grief for Albert. (She did manage to throw up a lot of expensive statues and memorials for Albert throughout the country, but actual useful monarchical work? Not so much.) 

Despite this avoidance of public life, Wilson does show that Victoria was keeping up with the paperwork related to parliamentary life and diplomacy overseas, but it was very in-the-background for many years. (If you’ve watched the Victoria series, she goes through quite a lot of advisers and prime ministers over the years, and despite all the rules about the monarch and the government being separate and equal, Victoria liked to have her little hand in things of governance at times which raised some eyebrows. Anyway, this book rather sorted out that complicated revolving door for me a little more, so that was helpful.)

So, I think that this biography is more for the Victoria Super Fan than merely a casual observer, and even then, the middle bit about the political landscape was slightly dry (shall we say?)

However, this was more than made up by all the details about how closely the British royal family was tied up with mainland European royal families through marriage (mostly), and it clearly lays out how much planning went to determine who should get married to whom and when, and to see how her nine children fare (or don’t as the case may be). (And Bertie fares as well as you would expect…)

Thank goodness for a family tree at the start of the book. Some people change names when they’re put on the throne so it can get a tad confusing in places. 

As mentioned, Wilson is a master biographer who goes into great detail about the life and times of this miniature monarch. (She really was not very tall.) I know that I have another volume by Wilson about the Victorians in general waiting on the TBR shelves so feel comfortable looking forward to that read at some time. 

Other related reads on the blog:

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Some Friday pretty…

Starting next week, it’s Spring Break where I am and I’m off on an adventure with my English mum. Posts might be a little sparse for the next few days, but I’m back soon!

Happy Spring (or perhaps Autumn) wherever you may be!

Movies, movies, movies…

As part of Black History Month celebrations, our local cinema screened a viewing of “Selma” (2014) which details the long march undertaken by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his group to secure equal voting rights. What was really cool was that the showing of the movie was followed by a panel of professors from the university’s law school, mostly constitutional law specialists but all of whom added a new level of interest to the whole thing. 

Anyway, back to the movie: this is a true story that follows a three-month period in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, when King and other members of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference were focused on voting rights and voter access for the African-American community at a time when there were many people still against it and when segregation was still common across the South. It culminated in the Selma-Montgomery march which ended with the (in)famous crossing of the bridge to enter the city. 

It’s a fascinating story to watch how the two sides waged war – the people who were anti-segregation and those who were for it. There seemed to be v little overlap between the two groups, and any contact between them was a tinder-box ready for flames, and the film does a really good job of showing how King, Malcolm X, and the other SLCC leadership had to work on many fronts to make any forward progress. 

If you’re interested in historical social justice, in voter rights, in politics, in American history, this would right up your alley. It definitely opened up a lot of rabbit holes down which for me to enter… 

(For a different perspective on this same event, check out Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel called The March trilogy.  Or perhaps check out this autobio of Melba Pattillo Beals who was one of the Little Rock Nine, the small group of brave students who attended the first high school in Little Rock that became desegregated in the 1960s. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time.)

Author James Baldwin.

Last night, we watched an Independent Lens documentary called “I am not your Negro” which relies upon documentary footage and the words of writer James Baldwin to tell the story of race in America. It utilized a mix of historical footage and more present-day events (Ferguson etc.) to show how far America has (and hasn’t come) in racial relations, and although I might not have been the biggest fan of Baldwin’s book Tell it on the Mountain, this documentary showed how powerful his words could be in the oral tradition. A whole other world when you hear it, and I encourage you to seek out this documentary. It’s very good.  

And then we also saw “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy in a film about Lee Israel, another U.S. writer but this time one who had come upon hard times and who decided to create forged letters from famous authors for her to sell to collectors in NYC. Israel herself doesn’t seem to be a sympathetic character, but the story was fascinating (especially if you’re interested in reading, writing, books etc.) It’s worth tracking down to see. .

And then it’s Oscar season as well…. Happy times.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

February 2019 – Reading Review

February turned out to be a reading-heavy month, which was fine by me and I enjoyed the majority of the titles. Since it was also Black History Month in the U.S., I usually try to put a heavier focus on POC authors and topics, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the number of POC titles I actually completed this year. (I enjoyed the majority of the reads, but the total itself just wasn’t as many as I had hoped for. I think the flu was responsible for some of that.) No biggie.

Still, better than nowt and all is good. I’ll just carry on with this POC focus throughout the rest of the year, as I have done for the past few years.

The reads for February 2019 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in February 201911
  • Total number of pages read 2,814 pages (av. 256). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 10 non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-book. (I know that this total equals more than 11, but the e-book was an owned book, so counts for two categories. Seeeeeee?)

Plans for March include going to Graceland and some reading. And probably a jigsaw puzzle as I haven’t done one for ages… 🙂

Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and our Times – Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolivic (2011)

I happen to be visiting Memphis (and Graceland) over Spring Break next month, and in preparation for that trip, I thought I’d look for a good bio about Elvis at the library. There were a couple, one of which looked very serious and intimidating, so of course I chose the other one. 🙂

I’m not the biggest Elvis fan in the world, but I grew up hearing his music and watching a few of his films, and I well remember that day when Elvis died in the ‘70s. So my thoughts of him are a tangle of Elvis in Hawaiian clothes or being rather overweight in a white rhinestone-sparkly outfit. I know, however, that there are people on this planet who live, breathe and die Elvis… (Hoping to rather see some people like this at Spring Break!) 

LOS ANGELES – APRIL 1964: Rock and roll singer and actor Elvis Presley in a movie still with a woman on the set of ‘Blue Hawaii’ at Paramount Pictures in April of 1961 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Going to Graceland seems like a very American pilgrimage to do, especially for my English mum (who I’m meeting there). My mum was around the right age to revere Presley (late teen/early 20s) and she probably wasn’t a SuperFan, but I know she knew his songs. 

So, never one to turn down American kitsch when it comes my way, I’m looking forward to the adventure. 

To the book: It’s written by three guys, two of whom are in academia (Ph.D. and/or doctoral student) and one a music journalist, but all three are very interested in the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly, their focus is on his music. 

(Editorial aside: What was pretty interesting was that the writing styles throughout the book were all very consistent. Sometimes, when you have multiple authors doing separate chapters, the styles don’t mesh but whoever edited this book deserves kudos for making this not the case for this title.)

‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Sam Phillips, recording studio executive.

It’s quite a short read for the life of someone who led such a meteoric life, but this is balanced out with the substantial bibliographies at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book (for further reading). However, what I found really appealing about this was that it was not just a straightforward biography (i.e. Elvis was born, he lived, he died). 

This looks at the life of Elvis via the perspective of the huge influence he had on American (and global) music and culture during his career while also considering who influenced the man himself. 

I don’t know if perhaps I’ve been pretty dense about this, but I hadn’t realized until now quite how much of an influence the African-American culture and music were on Elvis, although now I look back at it, of course it’s pretty obvious.

In fact, Elvis wasn’t even the first white singer to sing blues music, but he was surely around the beginning. (Actually, Elvis first gained attention for singing country music and its cousin rockabilly, but he was also influenced by the smooth crooning of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. It was a huge mashup of musical influences.)  

Bought up in Mississippi, Presley’s mother and father were poor and worked in the fields picking cotton alongside the many African-Americans who were also employed in that manner. 

Mississippi was originally the location of the biggest slave market in the country, and was a hub for both industry and immigration. It had been one of the way-stations along the route for those African-Americans who were moving to the North as part of the Great Migration, and thus, the Mississippi Delta is one of the birth places for blues music. 

(Interestingly, the Great Migration also included large numbers of poor white people, including the Presley family. Although born and raised on the “wrong side of the tracks” of Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis ended up living in Memphis, Tennessee, another informal station on the Great Migration route and where his family had moved trying to find a better life.)

Elvis’ parents were a hard-scrap couple, his mother employed at a shirt factory and his father with blue-collar jobs (via the New Deal) along with some involvement with bootlegging, and in fact, one suggestion was that his father’s activities with that was one of the reasons for the family’s move to Memphis. 

As common in the South, religion played a big role for the family and, despite living during one of America’s most racially charged periods of time, the Presley family did not hold racist attitudes to others. (Perhaps because of the constant exposure to their neighboring African-American families as friends and co-workers.) This close proximity also led to Elvis being exposed often to the gospel music and blues of his friends in the neighborhood. 

The Great Depression had ended just a few years before, WWII was a recent memory, and being the South, the centenary of the Civil War was close by, so it was a time of change for many. Elvis’ father had been charged with a poverty-motivated crime and sentenced to three years which caused a lot of financial hardship for the family. 

So, being of low income, their small home had no electricity or plumbing, but they could afford a battery-powered radio which was how the small Elvis was exposed to all these influences. Curiously, Elvis also became a huge fan of comic books, especially those of the superheroes like Captain Marvel. (Their capes became an integral part of his stage costumes in later life.) Huh. I hadn’t put that together…

(And so it goes on. This was a great read. I had no idea that Elvis led such a fascinating life. 🙂 )

Review: 500 Art Quilts: An Inspiring Collection of Contemporary Work – Ray Hemachandra and Karey Patterson Bresenhan (2010)

I happened to be struck with the flu the other week, and in this sick state, felt as though I couldn’t cope with reading actual words. To compensate (and still wanting to do something other than lie in bed being feak and weeble), I had luckily had a recent visit to the library and picked this title.

I’m not a quilter or sewer of any description – I could do buttons, I think – but I do appreciate and enjoy looking at contemporary art quilts and their designs because most of them can be AMAZING. (I can only imagine how much time and works goes into completing one.)

So, in my flu-ridden state, I could look at pretty pictures and this solid book ticked all those boxes for me. Generally, half the page layout was a big photograph of the quilt in question, and then on the other page was brief curatorial info about that particular project.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with art quilts, but they are related to the typical quilts (with the repeating squares in a pattern, for example).

However, art quilts happen to be fiber art that is used to express a thought in a way that is anything but traditional. As Booklist writes, “contemporary art quilts – with the emphasis on art – break the ancient code” of “block like, follow-the-rules fabric sandwiches.” (This description just cracked me up for some reason.)

Anyhoo, this volume has, just as it says on the tin, a wide selection of contemporary quilts that are only tangentially related to the one that someone’s grandma may have made in years past.

Juried by Karey Bresenhan, director of the International Quilt Festival, is an eagle’s eye view of 500 different quilt pieces, with styles ranging from hyper-realistic to abstract with a wide array of stitching and material incorporated into the design. (Some of the examples include so much more than just fabric!)

It’s a gorgeous and well-bound volume that takes you on a journey through some amazing art work using fiber, and I thought that this was a perfect read for a day when you’re feeling under the weather. The designs are astonishing and the colors so bright and cheerful, that you couldn’t help but enjoy this lovely amble through the selection.

I’m no closer to ever being an expert stitcher, but I did like this detour into the world of fiber art.  

“On this winter day.” Artist: Nancy Prince/Linda French. Winner, Houston International Quilts Festival, 2014.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931)

As part of Black History Month (and part of my ongoing goal to read more diversely), I saw this title on a blog somewhere (not sure where), but it seemed to align perfectly with my reading goal. Plus it looked fantastically interesting, so I found a copy at the library and set to reading it.

Barracoon is the name for a type of hut that was used for the confinement of slaves and criminals, and this book features remarks from interviews which Neale Hurston had with an 86-year-old former slave called Oluale Kossula. His slave name was Cudjo Lewis, and he arrived in America from West Africa where he was captured and brought across the sea on Clotilde, the last ship to cross the waters for the transatlantic slave trade.

Written in 1931 (but only published quite recently in 2018), Neale Hurston was at the start of her career as an anthropologist when she was tasked by her boss, Franz Boa, to meet and interview an 86-year-old former slave, one of the few survivors who could remember and then talk about his journey from Africa. (It’s astonishing to me that there was actually a living person with this memory back in the twentieth century. In my head, slavery happened yesteryear and ages ago, but obviously, I was wrong on that.)

Despite slavery having been deemed illegal in the US, Kossula was snatched from his African village and enslaved in the US in 1860. He was trapped as a slave for more than five years, when he was released and with others, worked to establish a community called Africatown in Alabama, a place where the other survivors from the Clotilde could live and work.

As Neal Hurston gradually gained the trust of Kossula, she was given more pieces of his history. Kossula was understandably not that trusting at first, but slowly and without rushing the process, Neale Hurston sat with and listened to this remarkable old man. Recalled in a heavy dialect that’s written almost phonetically, I could almost hear this old man recount his life in his accent.

It’s not that easy to follow, but you get the hang of it after a while and being able to “hear” his voice (via the writing) adds a level of intimacy that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to get in any other way (especially now with Kossula long gone from this earth).

Some of the freed slaves who lived in Africatown.

Without getting in the way of Kossula’s memory, Neal Hurston does a remarkable job of letting him tell his own life story without the need to be a filter for him. His story requires no translation, but it’s all the more remarkable when it’s “heard” in your head as his accent.

What makes this a stand-out account is that Kossula still has memories of his growing up in a small African village so it’s a more immediate account of a slave’s journey than perhaps other first-person recollections of slave life (for example, Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup).

Kossula’s memories of being captured and taken to the ship with a long and harrowing journey ahead of him is detailed and immediate. Since his memories are personal, the descriptions of the ship journey and his slave life are all the more powerful due to them being recent memories for him.

An NPR review puts it best when it describes this book as being not only about the brutality of slavery in this country, but also about the emotional toll of being taken away from your home and own language, of being lost and losing almost everything. It’s a multi-layered recollection that is all the more powerful for being so personal.

This is a tough read due to its focus on how inhumane people can be to others. But it’s also a powerful read to hear a man’s own words describe his journey from freedom to captivity to freedom again.

For a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Eyes were Watching God, check here.

See Now Then – Jamaica Kincaid (2013)

Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John [1985]) and Lucy [1990]), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.

WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.

I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the world. It did have all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you have one rather confused reader.

(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )

The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet  (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.) 

And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)

I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page). Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still, quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own personal experiences though.)

Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂

So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.

If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).

This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)