Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village – Ronald Blythe (1969)

“…making a strange journey in a familiar land…”

From the introduction, Akenfield (1969).

What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.

I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.

I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.

“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”

Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).

Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers, ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged in general).

In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).

This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the 1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be replaced by an unknown future.

Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in England. Highly recommended.

There’s also a 1974 film (loosely based on the book with Blythe himself playing a cameo role and in process of being digitized by the British Film Institute) and there’s an interesting article from the UK’s The Observer newspaper about a new study that will explore rural communities and the surrounding changing countryside (similar to Blythe)…

And here’s one about Akenfield 50 years on… (from the Daily Mail) and a Canadian author, Craig Taylor, has written an updated version of the book, Return to Akenfield (published in 2003).

Btw, the characters are real, but Blythe fictionalized the place using conversations with people from the hamlet of Debech (where Blythe actually lived) and Charsfield just 10 miles outside Ipswich.

Similar to this read:

Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor (1982)

After reading some other Naylor books, I was pretty curious about this one, Women of Brewster Place (1982) which seems to be actually the most famous one of the lot. It’s been made into a movie and a TV miniseries, was awarded the National Book Award for First Novel, and is typically the title with which more readers are acquainted. It’s also been the one that I’ve had to search the longest for!

After my first read of Naylor’s, I’ve been searching for a similar read from her pen but it seems as though that first read (Bailey’s Cafe – 1992) is actually the outlier for her oeuvre, and her work is actually much darker and strongly literate than I had initially realized. (This is not a bad thing, by any means, but does mean that I have really underestimated her writing.)

So, what about this read? This book, my third Naylor read, confirmed my feeling that Naylor is a much more complex writer than I had believed after that first read. The second read, Mama Day (1988), was a tougher more complicated read than Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and this one (published in 1982) was the one that was more broccoli (for me).

If you review the dates of when these books were published, it looks like Naylor started off with really complex narrative arcs and then gradually got easier over time, but I could be mistaken on that. There are still quite a few titles that I haven’t read just yet.

Naylor was well educated. She had an undergraduate degree in English from City University – New York, and a M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale. In fact she published Women of Brewster Place when she was still in college, which underscores that she was probably deeply immersed in lit criticism and theory at the time – perhaps one reason for the complexity in this novel.

Researching Naylor online, it’s mentioned quite often that she was really a fan of the Harlem Renaissance writers back in the 1920s (such as Langston Hughes, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston), and in fact, Naylor uses one of a few lines of Hughes’ Harlem poem as part of her epilogue of this novel. (Same reference as the title used for “Raisin in the Sun” play by Lorraine Hansbury (1959).

(And her parents were, in fact, part of that great northward movement called The Great Migration when thousands of African-Americans went north and east in search of an escape from the Southern racism.)

Obviously, Naylor was not the only African-American writer of the late twentieth-century to be influenced by this cultural movement: others include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was heavily influenced, in turn, by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), so there’s a lot going on there (and that’s before we even get into the plot!!)

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place.

The plot of this one revolves around one central apartment block (Brewster Place) which is used as the hub for meeting a group of different characters as they interact with each via these seven short stories. It’s a tapestry book with lots of different threads, but Naylor handles the introductions really well, and gives the reader enough info to keep a clear idea of each of these individuals. (Similar set up as Bailey’s Cafe in that there is a central location [almost a character in and of itself) through which a set of other people interact).

Written and published originally as short stories in Essence Magazine, each of these female characters (except the one male – but he’s been through hardship as well…) have all gone through personal hardship of one type or another which has led them along the path to Brewster Place. Individually, each character is strong but together they are stronger as a group (and this is clearly demonstrated in the last chapter when things come to a head for the women).

In her acceptance speech for the NBA (the award not the basketball league!), Naylor said that she wrote the book “as a tribute to her [mother] and other black women, who, in spite of very limited personal circumstances somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”

So, we have this group of disparate mostly female characters, who have all undergone different hardships and somehow have ended up living in close proximity to each other.

Not only are there overlapping actions between each of these women, but each separate story is also interwoven with similar dream imagery. This dream theme is repeated throughout the novel starting with Hughes’ poem about “a dream deferred”, combining it with MLK Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the dreams (delayed or otherwise) that each of the characters have themselves, and then that dream sequence {or is it} in the final concluding chapter.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying that I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life…”

Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963.

So, this turned out to be much deeper read than I first anticipated and although I may internally grumbled about this, in the end and after more research, it’s actually turned into a much more provocative read than I had originally thought.

As with most things, I think you’ll get the most out of this read if you continue to explore the book online once you’ve turned that last page. Naylor was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life, and this online poking-around can lead you down into all sorts of rabbit holes about the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, sharecropping, civil rights, and onward.

So, although this perhaps wasn’t the most *enjoyable* book in the world, I did get a lot out of it.

For another take on Women on Brewster’s Place, try this review from The Vulture (May 09 2019):

The Women of Brewster Place Cracked Open the Door for Queer Tv.

Gloria Naylor in 1992.

Cowboy: Guest Post

Bones, our newest addition.

This (above) is Bones, who we adopted a month or so ago. The first few weeks we had her were rather concerning, as she was really weak and worried. But, lots of good meals and plenty of love have brought her out from under the bed and now she is starting to wander around the house and explore things a bit more. Phew.

Nonfiction November Week 5: Titles on the TBR?

Credit: Elaine Wickham.

NF November Week 5: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it to your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book. (Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?)

I have had a very fun time toodling around and visiting lots of people’s blogs, which (thanks to NF November) I was happy to find out there in the vast prairie of Blogland.

This week, we’re asked which NF titles had made it on your own TBR list. So many from which to choose, but here are a small selection that I’ll be looking for in the future. (Each title is also linked with the name of the person on whose blog I saw it. Except for that one when I can’t really remember whose it was. Just let me know though!)

  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (from Bryan at Still an Unfinished Person.) 
  • Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (from Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books). 
  • Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help us Understand Ourselves – Laurel Braitmann (from Deb Nance at Readerbuzz).
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo. (From numerous bloggers, but for an example, Unruly Reader mentions it very nicely.)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (from Allison at Mindjoggle.)          
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson. (As with the Kondo book, several bloggers mentioned this, but for an example, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction? handles it well.) 
  • Playing DeadA Journey Through the World of Death Fraud – Elizabeth Greenwood. (Sorry – I just can’t track down who this rec came from, but let me know, and I am happy to get you that credit. Thanks.)
  • The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Women – Hallie Rubenhold (from Doing Dewey).
  • And Brona’s (at Brona’s Books) has done a good job promoting Aussie lit (both F and NF)… 

Naturally, there were absolutely loads of other good titles, but these were the ones who came to mind today. Plus – I haven’t been through all the other NF Nov entries just yet, so more delights to come, I’m sure. 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Let me add a huge thank you to all the other participants in this year’s NF November and, of course, to the hard-working hosts of this year’s Nonfiction November: 

I’m already looking forward to 2020’s version! 🙂

Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin (1960)

“Rest at pale evening…/A tall slim tree…/Night coming tenderly/Black like me.” “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.

Having heard vaguely of this title for quite a few years, I finally remembered to track down a copy of it at the library the other day. What a read (and this is me in the twenty-first century. I can only *imagine* the fuss it created when it was released in 1960!)

If you’re not sure about the plot of this NF book, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist from Mansfield, Texas, wanted to bring attention to the ongoing plight of the black American in the Deep South, and to do that, decided to work with a dermatologist to take medicine (usually for vitiligo) in such large quantities that it would substantially darken his skin (along with up to fifteen hours/day under a sun lamp).

Now under contract from Sepia Magazine (focused on a African-American reading audience), once Griffin believed that he had the same skin tone as an African-American man, he left his home with wife and children in order to travel across Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi to experience for himself the pain of life under racial segregation across the country for six weeks.

(And although most people believe that Griffin was the first man to undertake this experiment, it had actually been previously done before by journalist Ray Sprigle in 1949 published as a book called “In the Land of Jim Crow” but not to as much fanfare when it was published as Griffin’s work. And, interestingly, a little later a white female investigative journalist called Grace Halsell also lived for a time as a black women and wrote the book “Soul Sister” about her experience (1969), according to Wiki.)

Back to Griffin: This was an eye-opening read for me, in some ways because I was amazed at some of the things that Griffin was surprised at during his first few days as a “black” man: “Black people sweat like white people!” Woah. Did people really think there were any differences in this???

But then these slightly clumsy starting points were balanced with the truly difficult time Griffin had adapting to his new image in the mirror. Griffin actually uses the narrative tool of looking at his reflection in the mirror several times throughout the book in a very clever way to demonstrate how he gradually adapts to his new skin color until towards the end of his time when he reported that he was quite used to seeing himself that way.

::: Time passes as I think about how to write this review some more. :::

::: More time passes. I’m still thinking… :::

(You know this is actually a really difficult review to write. I’m torn between just reporting the material that I read in the actual book and how the whole sociological experiment looks to me through my modern eyes…

OK. I’ll do it this way: since you can easily look up for yourself the plot and details of the book, I’m going to tell you what I ended up thinking about this read:…)

I think that, most of all, it’s really important to keep foremost in your mind the time in history when this experiment was completed and when the book was actually written. It was in the late 1950s (1959, actually) in the U.S. at a time when racial relations were at a low (understatement) and when segregation was rampant throughout both the North and the South (but slowly being removed from the northern states).

Belzoni, Mississippi – showing the Colored entrance at the back of the building.

It was also at the start of the years which would bring the most change:

  • Brown vs. the Board of Education happened in May, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment of “separate but equal”. (This was about desegregation of schools. See below.)
  • 1955, teenager Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago, allegedly whistled and made a remark to a white woman, leading to two white men dragging Till from his uncle’s house, beating him and then shooting him to death before throwing him in the river. An all-white jury acquitted the two men of any murder charges…
  • 1955, a month after Till’s death, the Montgomery, Alabama’s citywide boycott would begin (with Rosa Parks) and spearheaded by a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association led by a young man called — Martin Luther King, Junior…
  • 1957 was when Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other teenagers integrated Little Rock’s Central High School… (See Warriors Don’t Cry review for this…)
  • 1960, the four black students refuse to move from the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter… and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in Raleigh that same year.
  • 1961 saw the start of the Freedom Rides and 1963 was Martin Luther King, Junior’s speech, “I Have a Dream” which paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act…
  • NOTE: (African-American women wouldn’t get the right to vote until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed, five years after Griffin’s book had been published. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected in 1968, eight years after this book’s publication.) (Compare with now ref: redlining, redistricting and voter registration issues… Grrr.)

So when the book was published, America was starting to get apprehensive in terms of race relations, and in fact, in Griffin’s book, he makes several mentions of how tense the situation feels on the streets in general…

(In fact, take a look at the Langston Hughes poem that is given at the start of this post (and at the start of the book)…

And – if you’re interested, take a look at how the music culture is being impacted around now, and you can see how this tension ratcheting up throughout the country played out via that avenue: Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, John Coltrane (and including some white musicians as well: Bob Dylan etc.) – and then later with James Brown’s “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”…

And also drama and plays: Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) was published in 1959, for example, while To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner (film with Sydney Poitier et al.) (1967) were released a bit later.

It’s a fascinating read especially when you look at how all these changes in American society and cultural mores were happening at the same time (or around that time)…

(NOTE: I am certainly not an expert on this, but there is plenty of info online for further information… Highly recommend you do some further reading if you’re interested in learning more.)

For more reading:

And for how it’s viewed 50 years later: