June 2020 Reading Review

The reads for June 2020 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in June 20207
  • Total number of pages read 2181 pages (av. 321). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • Diversity 5 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and 0 e-books.

Plans for July 2020 include a month of teaching online Summer School at the university, prepping their lectures and grading work… Apart from that, lots of reading, jigsaw puzzles and hanging out. Temperatures are very hot outside for the most part, so it’s a pretty indoor life right now. 😉

Our city has a few lakes and flooded canyons. Here is one of them on a lovely weekend morning walk the other day.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman – Erica Armstrong Dunbar (2019)

Crikey. This was one heckuva read about an amazing Black woman. It’s also an excellent nonfiction book with cool modern graphics integrated in amongst its well-written text. (I know. Lots of praise but this volume deserves every ounce of that.)

If you’re unfamiliar with Harriet Tubman, get thee to at least the Wikipedia page and read about this true American hero. (No hyperbole there.) Her life story just blew me away. 🙂

Harriet Tubman (1885). Photograph by Horatio Seymour Squyer. National Portrait Gallery.

So – not only is this the life story of an astonishingly brave woman, this title presents her history (or herstory) in a modern and extremely graphically-pleasing format. And — it’s well-written. As you can perhaps surmise, this was an informative and wonderful read for me, and I highly recommend it for you.

She Came to Slay:
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author.

If you’re not familiar with Tubman (and disregarded my advice in the second paragraph to go and read the Wiki page on her), you’re missing out. Tubman may have been small in stature (five feet tall) but holy cow – she had the biggest and bravest heart and used that courage to save hundreds of people from slavery.

Not only was she a leader in the historical Underground Railway system for escaped slaves, but she was also a hardcore soldier, a brilliant spy, a suffragette for the vote AND an advocate for old people. And – she had brain surgery without anesthetic. Phew. Can you see why I am amazed by this fabulous woman?

Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard professor of history at Rutgers in New Jersey, has done a great job here of relating Tubman’s life and endless achievements, all done in an energetic and graphically pleasing presentation which made this a pure pleasure to read.

It’s written in a conversational tone (despite Armstrong Dunbar’s academic status), but this tone comes across as friendly and informative, similar to watching an approachable historical documentary onscreen but while retaining the sheen of academic rigor to the text.

Credit: Toledo Public Library.

A powerful and mesmerizing read about one of the most impressive historical figures I have ever come across. I’m astonished that Tubman is not more well known for her life and times – she should be. This will be definitely be one of the top reads for 2020. Amazing.

(Curiously – Tubman was scheduled to be honored on the design of the $20 dollar bill [to replace racist President Andrew Jackson] but true to form, the Orange Goblin has put the kibosh on that for now. See this CNN article for the (disgusting) details. Sigh.)

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You’re still here? Shouldn’t you be at the library checking this book out? Or buying it online? Why – yes. You should. 😉

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights – Gretchen Sorin (2020)

With the world in this state of flux (for all of the many different reasons), I’m really interested in learning more about the history and the lives of the many people who call the U.S. “home”.

At the same time, I’m also committed to reading more BIPOC authors and topics, so toddled off to the library to see what I could track down on the shelves.

“Driving While Black” covers some of the history of American civil rights through the lens of automobiles and their overlap with social history. This was a fascinating read.

As the cover copy states, this book “reveals how the car – the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility – has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing [B]lack families to evade the many dangers presented by en entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open read.”

And although a lot of this history may not have been unfamiliar to me, the manner of how these two topics were combined and presented was eye-opening for me, as a white reader. Through careful documented research, Sorin puts together a thorough timeline of the parallels between the introduction (and subsequent widespread adoption) of the car and the increasing social roles of Black people in America:

Travel for Negroes inside the borders of the United States can become an experience so fraught with humiliation and unpleasantness that most colored people simply never think of a vacation in the same terms as the rest of America.

The Saturday Review, 1950

Geographer Karl Raitz has described the American roadside as a public space open for everyone, but the roadside itself only represented private interests.

This presented a dilemma for Black travelers: sure, you can buy a car (if you can afford it); sure, you can drive your car along the roads for great distances throughout the U.S., BUT if you want to actually stop at any point along your journey, these “private interests” (the hotels, restaurants, rest-stops etc.) are not always going to be welcoming for you and your family.

So, the introduction of the car to Black consumer symbolized freedom, just as it did for other car owners, but only the freedom of driving along the actual macadam. If you, as a Black driver, became hungry or tired and wanted to stop along the way, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Do you see the dilemma now?

Sorin goes into well-documented depth on this using oral and written histories to bring you, as the reader, into this problematic world. As the twentieth century progressed, American life slowly and incrementally improved for Black families but it was geographically uneven and in irregular fits and starts. Sorin’s decision to intertwine consumer history of the car industry and the social history of Black America made this a riveting read which made me shake my head as the stupidity of racism.

Throughout the twentieth century, America was a confusing mix of integrated and non-integrated places which made traveling by car hazardous for Black drivers without significant preparation.

What were your options for help if you had a flat tire by the side of the road on a highway? Where would your family sleep at night? Have you packed enough food and drink for the non-stop journey (obviously you can’t stop at any old restaurant along the way)? Would your life be safe if you were driving in this particular community after sunset? (There were more than 150 “sundown towns” across the U.S.). And don’t even think about what your choices were if one of your party became sick and needed medical care…)

It is insane that the Land of the Free allowed these horrible constraints on some of its very own citizens. How traumatic for these early Black travelers just to drive to see other family members!

“At the Time of the Louisville Flood” – 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. (Getty Images.)

You’ve probably heard of the Green Book (link to book review), one of several travel guides for Black drivers on where to go, where to eat and where to stay, but this was just one of several publications that were popular at the time. (Huh. Didn’t know that but it makes sense that Victor Green wasn’t the only one to see the need.)

As cultural mores slowly started to shift and the white-owned travel business saw that more money could be made by catering to Black business, more hotels and restaurants gradually started to cater to these new customers. The Civl Rights Act of 1964 further accelerated this program (although it was achingly slow in parts of the South), but people were stubborn to change and adapt.

The problem of [B]lack business is not the absence of [B]lack support, but the absence of white support.

John H. Johnson, owner, Ebony magazine, 1971.
The Post-Racial Negro Green Book by Jan Miles (2017).

And although life has improved for Black Americans in the 21st century, it’s still got a ways to go. (Witness: police brutality et al.)

In 2017, author Jan Miles published “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book“, which is her take on the historical travel guide but this one is a 2013-2016 state-by-state collection of police brutality, racial profiling and everyday racist behavior by businesses and private citizens. Yikes.

Suffice to say that this was a powerful read for me. It wasn’t perfect in terms of the writing (quite a bit of repetition which could have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor), but the content more than made up for that.

Highly recommended!

The Mothers – Brit Bennett (2016)

After reading Petry’s excellent work, I wanted to read a more modern Black author so I tracked down Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” (2016). After having seen all the recent exposure for her most recent release, “The Vanishing Half” (2020), I was curious about all the hoopla so nipped down to the library to see what I could find. “The Mothers” was what I left with. 

The plot revolves around an African-American community who are linked with a Black church called the Upper Room. The main protagonist, Nadia, is still reeling from her mother’s unexplained suicide and, along with her surviving father, Nadia spends with and is supported by the Church Mothers, a tightly-knit group of women who are deeply involved with this religious organization. Along the way, Nadia also hangs out with young Luke, the son of the pastor, and ends up getting pregnant with Luke’s child. But what to do, what to do…

This was a very quick read – Bennett rightly has a lot of traction in the publishing world right now and the narrative flows well and is well-written. So I’m quite puzzled why I wasn’t as positively taken with this title as many other readers have been. It wasn’t a bad read, by any means, but it wasn’t as supercalifragilistically fantastic as I had expected it to be. 

As I think about this, this was a pretty “issues-y” novel – unmarried/unplanned pregnancy, a parent who has killed herself (but why? It’s never explained…), a lonely young woman trying to sort out her life with a fairly-distant father who doesn’t help her… It seemed to me as though Bennett had thought of some issues mostly likely to attract her readers and then plugged them in to the plot as she wrote.

You know – it reminded me of the 1980s/1990s Oprah Books where they were designed to trigger long meaningful interactions about knotty social issues that tend to happen to “other people”.

I’m glad I read it – I don’t regret the time I spent with this book at all but to put it into perspective for you, my favorite thing about the edition that I read was the artwork on the cover. (Really nice.) So – perhaps this is more of a beach read than a substantial work on social issues. It was fun to read. It was well-written, but it was a pretty superficial approach to some weighty issues. 

(It’s also possible that I could be the only person in the world who doesn’t gush over Bennett’s work, so you might take this with a grain of salt. It just suffered in contrast after reading the excellence of Petry’s book immediately before it. If you’re looking for a solid read this summer, the Petry is the one I’d recommend.) 

Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.) 

So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}

Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting. 

Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print. 

Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939. 

(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.) 

Ann Petry.

Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family. 

Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her. 

This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern. 

Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape. 

(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.

In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.) 

It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true. 

It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace. 

Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!

*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??

Summer mini-reviews

Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those. 

My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election. 

I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time. 

A tricky (and miniature) jigsaw puzzle completed the other day. 🙂

Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open. 

I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:

Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉 

Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok. 

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!) 

The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy. 

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country. 

Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.

After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer. 

Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.

*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo (2013)

Wow. I have just finished up my first read of Bernadine Evaristo’s novel called “Mr. Loverman” – and I loved it. There is not one doubt in my mind that this will not make my Top Ten List of books at the end of the year. Right now, it’s tantalizingly close to the top…

Yes, it was THAT good. I enjoyed this read even more than her 2019 Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, so whatever your experience was with that the highly regarded novel, good or bad, there is an even higher possibility that you will enjoy this novel as much (or more).

Such high words of praise, right? Let me tell you more….

The actual plot revolves around Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old British immigrant, born on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, who now lives his life in Hackney in London. Barrington (now called Barry) is known for this retro dress sense and as a husband, father and a grandfather. 

He’s been married to wife Carmel for years and has two daughters. 

At the same time as Barry has been married to Carmel, he’s also been living a secret parallel life with his childhood friend and lover, Morris. 

Barry’s retired from his factory job and now has some big choices to make. (And never fear. I’m not giving anything away about the plot here. It’s all on the back-cover text of the paperback I have.)

Barry is a joy to get to know – he is cheeky, mischievous, careful of others’ feelings. At the same time, Barry is deeply flawed in some ways and yet this only makes him even more human. 

He has a grown-up family with wife Carmel, but he’s in love with Morris (and has been for his whole life since he was a child on his island home). His marriage is going into meltdown and Morris would like him to move in with him into his flat. What to do, what to do. 

Bernadine Evaristo, award-winning author.

Evaristo has written this novel mostly from the POV of Barry (with occasional flashes of POV from other characters) and to stay true to that vision, she has written it all in a strong Caribbean accent (mixed up with a bit of London dialect). 

At the same time, the story is also deeply immersed in the older Caribbean immigrant culture of Britain and I found it to be fascinating to see Barry glide in and out of these overlapping environments, each with their own particular set of mores and expectations.

Although this novel is a love story, it also addresses the more weighty issues of prejudice, truth (the definition of truth, to yourself and to others), being a good person, love-is-love, family relationships… It sounds like a very heavy read but through these different POVs, it’s handled with aplomb by the author. 

Barry is hilarious at times. Once I got the hang of his Antiguan accent, I was swept up into the story and stuck closely with him as he tries to figure out what he wants. He’s a caring man – he doesn’t want to be malicious to anyone but he’s old, his family has grown and the marriage seems to consist of constant bickering. 

Morris is his safe haven – but is he willing to risk everything he knows for his childhood friend and lover? 

The only downside I saw in the entire novel was the final chapter. It reads as though it’s just stuck on to the plot at a later date and time in that there is a definite change in the writing style and tone. Barry’s POV remains the focus, but the actual voice of Barry is so completely different. 

It’s set a year ahead of time (I think), and there is the possibility that the characters could have grown and/or matured in some way. The POV just didn’t even sound as if it was originating with the same character.

The writing style (even some of the word choices) seemed rather out-of-character after the previous 298 pages. It didn’t ruin the novel but I was left rather puzzling about why the book ended up like this. 

Despite that little hiccup, I still adored this read. I loved getting to know Barry and Morris, his adult daughters are hilarious in their own ways, and it’s a complex love letter to the city of London and its melting-pot residents. 

Just loved this and am now planning a second read. I’m sure that there were quite a few things that I missed in the first time through… 

Plus – it looks Evaristo has other texts out there to chase down. <rubs hand with glee>. 

COVID Catchup…

Thought I would do more of a roundup post for today, just to catch things up a bit more than they are right now. Pandemic life continues for most of us, I think, along with some protesting and various other sociopolitical ills – but we’ll always have some good books to read. :-}

It’s storm season here in West Texas, which means that hail, thunder and lightning (and rain, of course) are fairly frequent visitors in the late afternoons of early summer.

With the increasing frequency and severity of weird weather here, last Spring we forked out to have a metal storm shelter put into the floor of the garage and last Tuesday, we had enough reason to go into it (both because the weather had potential to be tornadic and also because we needed the practice of using it).

(Above) – The actual metal storm shelter is the white box on the truck’s trailer above. (The guy is leaning on it, waiting to unload the shelter.) See – it’s pretty small. (This was back in February so no leaves on the trees.)

Let me describe this shelter for you: it’s in the photo above so you can see it’s not very big. It’s made of metal and is sunk into the concrete ground of our garage, so it’s close enough to our house for us to nip out there if we need to. Just big enough for 2-3 people (and/or pets).

The Superhero and I had our strategy planned out previously and thought that the storm coming through town had enough potential to be dangerous.

Additionally, we were also listening to the National Weather Service radio and their announcer kept repeating (on a loop) that the storm was favorable for tornadoes (as la Wizard of Oz), that people should take immediate shelter as complete destruction of property was imminent, and that, in fact, a large tornado had been spotted just a few miles away from where we lived. Crikey.

So we scooped up the one cat we could find, shoved her in a carrier, grabbed the German Shepherd and trotted out to the shelter, with the very real concern that a big tornado could fall from the sky and completely obliterate our house and neighborhood at any minute. We’d already put together a storm shelter kit (with the essentials) so picked that up on the way out and then climbed down into this small metal box shelter. 

Storm shelters are not particularly made for long-term (or even short-term) comfort for its occupants. They are designed to withstand incredible EF-5 tornadoes (and their associated weather patterns), so they don’t have any AC or any other creature comforts.

Basically, we were sitting in a hot underground metal shoe box with a frightened cat and a large nervous dog.

It’s pretty strange as there is nothing you can do about anything outside this shelter – you just have to wait, sweating and hoping that, when you slide back the protective top lid, your house is still there when you climb out.

As it so happened, there was no tornado (phew!) but we did have large hail stones (see pic above) and there was terrific thunder and lightning all around us, so I must admit it was slightly nerve-wracking for both the humans and the pets.

Luckily, it didn’t last long and we are more prepared to handle this situation next time. Practice makes perfect etc. etc. Amazingly enough, our roof and cars weren’t damaged in the hail. 🙂

Apart from that, it’s been pretty quiet around here. The Superhero had the week off from work, which was fun, and we finished up some jobs around the house, took Nova Dog hiking in some nearby state parks and piddled around. 

I have also done some reading…. 🙂

COVID has enabled me to focus a lot on my TBR pile (since the library has been closed until early last week), and I’ve really enjoyed reading through some of these long-held but long-neglected titles. First up is a novel about a small of people who pick strawberries in the English fields… 

Published in the UK as “Two Caravans” (but in the US as “Strawberry Fields”), this 2007 novel by Marina Lewycka was a good and fast read. Lewycka is the author of several novels, one of which is the best-selling novel, “A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine” (which also features a group of European immigrants who have come to England to work picking fruit) and so “Two Caravans” follows a similar narrative arc in some ways.

The characters in the more recent novel are a scrappy group of immigrants from Africa, China, Malaysia and Eastern Europe, all hard-working people trying to get a foothold to live the Western life in England. However, their current lives are far from that comfortable dream, seeing as they are being (poorly) paid as farmworkers hand-picking strawberries in the Kent countryside while living in two caravans (i.e. tiny and very basic RV-type vehicles), one caravan for women and one for the men. 

Two caravans, probably similar to the ones that are featured in Lewycka’s novel.

As the small group live and work, they coalesce into a tight-knit friendship of sorts and life is running fairly smoothly for everyone (including their farmer employer), but when the farmer’s wife finds out about her husband’s fling with one of the workers, the jobs evaporate and the small group is forced to travel on the roads of England to find safe haven. 

This most recent novel is more serious, more political and covers substantial issues such as human trafficking, immigration, homelessness and other social ills.

Good read – I rather felt as though the novel was trying to cover too many social issues, but it was still an enjoyable read with some charming characters. 

The Disease history book cont’d…

More fascinating notes from the book, Disease by Mary Dobson. (Part One of review is here.)

According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.

In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.

(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)

Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)

Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)

Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)

So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).

However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.

Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.

I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉

If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?

That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.

Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.

Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include: