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.

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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.

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 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.)

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001)

Another read from the TBR pile (go me!), this is a novel that revolves around the life and times of a young teenaged boy growing up in Birmingham, UK in the 1970s. It’s from the POV of young Ben Trotter (called Bent Rotter by his friends), a beginning romantic poet and musician schoolboy who’s head over heels in love with Cicely Boyd, one of the most beautiful girls at their partner school for girls. And although it’s written with this guy’s POV, it also is heavily influenced by the current affairs of England at the time: the never-ending strikes for coal, car-makers, and others. The IRA formation and its bombings. (We would have bomb drills at school growing up.) Progressive and punk rock. (Plus there are some similarities in character between this protagonist and Adrian Mole, although this is much much more serious in nature.)

It also happens that this protagonist is much the same age as I happened to be during this time, so there were a lot of cultural references mentioned that resonated with me as I was growing up in England.

I had been on the lookout for a gritty domestic novel, something along the lines of an “Angry Young Man” or a gritty kitchen-sink drama, and this one fulfilled that category perfectly. It is gritty – a lower-middle-class family living in an industrial city working in a car factory facing union employees and dilemmas.

Jonathan Coe, author.

It’s quite a serious book in some ways: it deals with love (young love, marital love, affairs), it deals with political issues (the strikes, the unions, the IRA), it deals with class, but it’s all presented in such a way that it’s actually pretty hilarious in places. It uses a deadpan satirical perspective which matches the grey cold and damp country in which it is placed, and the world of the 1970s provides a matching cold and damp background. (Thatcher is Prime Minister, the National Front makes an appearance…)

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Young Ben, the protagonist, is yearning to be a serious poet/musician (Coe is a musician as well), and writes experimental music which he believes is meaningfully beautiful, but he is surrounded by his friends who labor under more prosaic goals: getting a girlfriend, trying not to be embarrassed by their parents and/or siblings, struggling to get through school and the rather Lord-of-the-Flies culture that exists in that world.

(Random but interesting: “The Rotter’s Club” is believed to have the longest sentence ever written in the literature of the English language: 13,995 words (ahead of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom in “Ulysses”. Not that I’ve read that, mind you.)

The book is fairly straightforward in how it’s structured, but the straight narrative is interspersed with excerpts of letters, leaflets, and articles from the school magazine, including this longest sentence. (It goes on for thirty-three pages.)

There are several stories interwoven throughout the book, both tragedy and comedy, and there are some serious moments as well, particularly with regard to how some of the characters feel about religion, but it all fits together very well.

And – good news for me – Coe has written a sequel featuring this same group of characters except set in the 1990s. Going to have to keep a lookout for that title (“The Closed Circle” [2004]).

Screen Time….

There’ve been some good movies lately, so thought I’d bring you a couple of thoughts about two that we’ve seen in the past month or so. Both of them were good (although one was miles better than the other), and both were pretty different from each other. 

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’d been curious about seeing Bryan Cranston/Kevin Hart’s project called “The Upside.” The trailer had made it look like a light-hearted comedy (and Hart is a comedian) so that was the approach I’d taken and was expecting. It was a pretty good movie, but the end result was that I felt that the producers couldn’t decide if they wanted this to be a comedy or a serious drama. Due to this indecision, it felt like the movie didn’t really reach either of these goals and so I walked out feeling slightly dissatisfied. 

It’s got a fairly standard plot line contrasting two very different characters who are more or less forced to be together and then hijinks result. Cranston’s character is a quadriplegic who happens to have oodles of money. He needs to hire a full-time live-in caregiver and that’s the (slightly clumsy) way that Hart’s character is introduced – as a candidate for that position. Hart, on the other hand, is a foul-mouthed newly-released ex-con who has to prove to his probation officer that he’s been applying for jobs. Hart needs a signature on his form to show that he’s been on a job interview, and so this is how the two people cross paths. 

(You know, it reminded me of the older movie called “Trading Spaces” with Eddie Murphy which has a similar set up between its characters, and is actually, you know, funny.…) 

However, as mentioned, the movie couldn’t decide whether to play up the comedy angle (two colliding worlds) or whether it would be a serious drama (life lived with serious disability and the impact it has on the person), so at the end, I was left feeling confused. It wasn’t hilarious (as the trailer had sold it) but it also wasn’t a serious drama (which it could have been). It ended up being somewhere vaguely in the middle, which left some frustration. 

The other movie that I saw was the brilliant “On the Basis of Sex” about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones who’s actually English but can do one hell of an American accent). I was slightly concerned when I saw the words “based on a true story” right at the beginning of the film since that can mean several things: is it only slightly based on the true story? Which piece(s) are not factual? And why did the producers decide to veer off the true life and when? 

However, despite these concerns, the bio pic ended up being really good (although I’m still not clear which bits were factual or not). Bader Ginsberg is a true American hero for me, and with the recent Cavanaugh hearing (he of the “I like beer” comment), the contrast between her views and that of other justices is huge – almost as though they are from completely different planets. With Bader Ginsberg alive and kicking, I feel safe that she’ll represent the more liberal views of this country, but she’s getting on in years and people don’t live forever…

Back to the movie: it was very well done and although I kept wondering what the true and not-true bits were, the plot line did show how driven Bader Ginsberg had been to be one of the first group of women to attend Harvard Law School, how she balanced home-work life with her husband (who seemed to be very cool to me), and how Bader Ginsberg had used her considerable legal knowledge to help to bring down the very-established gender discrimination which had been in place in the laws of the U.S. for eons.

Her plan seems to have been to show the courts that gender discrimination works in both ways, and so she developed a great argument for an unmarried male caregiver who had been denied tax relief for his caring for his old mum. By using such a non-threatening (to the males) approach of demonstrating the unfairness of such bias in the laws, Bader Ginsberg carefully paved the way for addressing the numerous other ways that the law had discriminated against women. An absolutely brilliant approach for the day and age in which they were living.

The film focuses around her law school years and on this particular case so it’s a fairly narrow time period, but it clearly shows the widespread discrimination that Bader Ginsberg and other women had to deal with. Looking back, I shake my head that it was allowed to continue as long as it did (and still does in some places), and so I am filled with admiration for Bader Ginsberg’s courage and leadership to change things. 

SPOILERS NOW FINISHED.

Anyway, I just loved this film and I’m still curious about what was true and not-true in the movie. Maybe this is the year that I finally read a biography of Bader Ginsberg to find out for myself.  🙂

TV-wise, we’ve been getting into Jason Bateman/Laura Linney’s crime/drama series called “Ozark.” Goodness me – they know how to ratchet up the suspense on these episodes (without Netflix bloat) , and now we’ve reached the end of Season Two, we’re all atwitter for Season Three. (Luckily, the series got renewed so there will be continuation. Phew.) Highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new series to watch – just know that it gets a little tense at times. 🙂

Trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico…

All calculations based on experience elsewhere, fail in New Mexico.

Lew Wallace, Territorial Governor, 1881.

The day after Christmas, the Superhero and I made a quick run to get out of town for a long weekend, and so we ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is one of our neighboring states. It also happened to be at the exact same time as what TV stations were calling “the biggest blizzard of the last 20 years”, but we had our new truck with 4×4 and we were looking forward to a bit of snowy adventure so off we set. 🙂

Santa Fe is at a higher altitude than where our home is, and there was an enormous (as wide as New Mexico) blue cloud on the radar. Due to the storm that was slowly plodding across the area, the drive was a bit of an adventure. In the end, the total time in the car was about nine hours which is almost double what the typical journey takes. Snow really slows you down.

Luckily, New Mexico is very good with its snow management so there were enough snow-ploughs to keep the roads mostly clear, but we were pretty grateful to be in the Superhero’s four-wheel drive truck. (There were so many cars who had slithered off the road and were waiting somewhat forlornly for a rescue truck. We would have stopped to help if anyone was in critical danger from cold or otherwise, but most of the cars that littered the roadsides were perfectly fine. Just stuck.) 

We had splashed out and booked up at La Fonda, one of the nicest hotels in the city, and although it was really only an overnight trip, the hotel made it more special than usual since it was pretty posh.

Santa Fe is the capital city of the state, and is an interesting place to visit, interesting for many reasons but for this trip, it was notable as it looked so different in the snow. 

The small city has an ordinance that all the buildings within a certain distance of the central town square have to abide by certain architectural standards and design, principally based on using adobe, so there is a pleasing symmetry to the streets as you walk around. It’s an arty community with citizenry from both ends of the income spectrum, but mostly wealthy. It’s a little bit like walking around a rich area such as Aspen, with lots of expensive art shops and restaurants all with the adobe architecture that reflects the area’s influence from the numerous First People’s tribes. 

It’s not a city that looks like any other that I’ve been to (by design), and when it’s snowing, the red sand of the adobe buildings looks very pretty against the falling snow flakes. Plus, since it was only a day or two after Christmas, a lot of the decorations were still up: lights in the trees around the main square, and a Santa Fe version of an adobe gingerbread house in the hotel’s lobby:

The hotel’s version of the classic Christmas gingerbread house… Adobe!

So, that was a fun trip (even with the snow!). The cold weather also meant that not many cars were on the roads, and though the road trip was almost doubled in terms of its typical travel time, we even had a long enough drive-time for us to listen to a complete audio book, which is a record for us. (It was a murder mystery by Mary Higgins Clark, but not sure which one. It was surprisingly good.)

It was great to get out of town for a break of sorts, and when we returned home, we still had another week or two before going back to work (which was nice).

So, since I haven’t said this yet: Happy new year! May you have peace and lots of good reading!

The main square in SF all decorated with colorful fairly lights…

Catch up from Christmas…

When school finished up in mid-December, there was the usual crush of reviewing final exams and getting the grades in on time and so it was a few days before I could really sit down and chill out. Since I’m now faculty, I earn the same university breaks as the students which ended up about three weeks, give or take a day. (I still find it amazing that I’m now on the faculty side of the university after twenty years as a staff member. That staff work experience definitely enables me to be a stronger faculty member, I must say.) 

So, to the reading:

I really enjoyed a solid read of The Butchering Art by social historian Lindsay Fitzharris. About Joseph Lister and his quest to revolutionize Victorian medical care via anesthesia and better hygiene, this was an NF which ticked almost all of my reading boxes: well written, well researched, Victorian times, medical history, social history, dry sense of humor – and I really enjoyed this read. (See here for a more in-depth review.) 

Then, I embarked on the journey of Alex Haley’s Roots, the fiction-y saga of Haley’s family who were shipped to the U.S. as part of the Slave Triangle trade route and have stayed in the States since then. True or not, this was a really interesting narrative. Does anyone remember watching the old TV series of Roots when it came on? I’ve always meant to read the book, and finally got around to it. I think that there is some debate about what exactly is true and what is not, but just speaking about the plot – it’s a good read and really demonstrates how strong Haley’s family (and others in the same situation) must have been to make it through all these years. 

(Roots was also a Big Scary Book in terms of page numbers, so go me. It’s the little things, right?)

I read some more of Ray Bradbury’s sci fi, this title being The Martian Chronicles (see review here), and it happened to be one of those library books which have the well-turned yellowing pages with a perfect type font and size as well which made it a really enjoyable read. (I can’t help it. A reading experience involves much more than just the words for me!)

Traveled to a plot set in India with Lavanya Sankaran’s 2013 novel, The Hope Factory (another really good read with interesting characters and a fast-moving plot but no blog post), and then followed that up with a library checkout of the latest book Homebody by Joanna Gaines, an HGTV interior designer who (along with her husband Chip) has a series of TV shows about doing up old houses. This led me to redoing some of the decorations around the house and getting inspired that way – plus it had lots of pictures to look at!

Then a solid read of the 2018 America’s Best Travel Writing volume which was pretty bad until about halfway through when suddenly the read clicked for me. It was edited by Cheryl Strayed, and since I’m not the biggest fan of her work, I think this was the reason that I didn’t get on with the initial selections in the book. We did become more friendly in the end, but if I had stuck with Nancy Pearl’s rule of 50 pages, it would have been a DNF for sure. That’s the gamble with a curated collection of stories in these volumes… Still, as mentioned, I did come across some good selections which saved the read for me.

The new year brought more determination to read from my own TBR pile, so I pulled a random title with an old Virago volume, The Orchid House by Phyllis Strand Allfrey (1954). No real blog post, but this was an ok read (albeit slightly strange). This novel is widely considered to be one of the stalwarts of Caribbean literature despite the fact that Allfrey was of Caucasian descent and of a family that benefited significantly from the slave trade.

However, this seems to be generally forgiven since this narrative, her first (and only) published novel, was from the perspective of an old island nanny of the family. It’s a pretty dark and rather strange book though. However, this was more of a broccoli book for me in the end. Nothing too outstanding though, and I’m glad to have finally read it after it being on the TBR shelves for longer than I will admit. 🙂

I’m in the middle of reading some Wodehouse for light relief, and just about to pick up another one from the TBR, this one called The Rotter’s Club, a 2001 novel by Jonathon Coe. Very different from the Caribbean novel as this one is set in the much colder and grittier parts of Birmingham in England in the 1970s, and is from the perspective of a young lad. It’s been really funny in places so far – enough that I burst out laughing at the gym this morning – so I’m looking forward to the read. 

So that’s me all caught up for now. How have your reads been lately? 

The Best of 2018

So, in the manner of a lot of book bloggers, I have compiled a list of my “Best of…” titles that I’ve read last year for both fiction and for non-fiction. In the same vein, titles on these lists are not necessarily published in 2018 – this is just when they made their wending way into my grubby little mitts and off the TBR pile (for some of them)…

To the lists:

Fiction Top Five:

Non-Fiction Top Five:

There were some honorable mentions as well, but I’m going to keep it short and sweet. These were my Top Ten Reads of 2018 (for today!) 

2018 Reading Year in Review

Similar to others in the book blogosphere, I rather enjoy being quite nerdy and reviewing how my reading patterns went over the past year, although I had thought I had read more than this. However, no worries. It’s not a race so all is fine. Just interesting. 

So, to the numbers:

TOTAL books read in 2018 – 78. (Average: 6.5 books/mo.) Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in March (which coincided with Spring Break travel and prep for said trip.)

This was composed of almost 50/50 with regard to F and NF. (Actual numbers were 40 F and 38 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio.)

Authors:  Another category that’s almost 50/50:  41 M and 37 F

Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC: 30 (38%, just over one in every three).

Where were these books from? 

I’m pleased with this one: 50 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)

I read an average of one e-book (Kindle) for each month. Library was the other source.

Publication details:

Year range of publication date: 1899 (The Vampyre/Polidori) to 2018 (various). 1993 average.

Shortest book length: 32 pp (The Vampyre/Polidori). Longest: 912 pp (Roots/Hailey). 295 pp. average.

Overall, this was a fun year. Additionally, I had two solid reads of the AP Style Book (for professional development), so it was a good mix of work/play. I had an enjoyable year. 

Goals for 2019? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun. 🙂