The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.)

I am a big fan of the America’s Best (insert your choice of writing style here) and so couldn’t resist scooping this title up when I saw it for sale.

(See previous reviews for 2000, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018 here.)

And – just like eating a big old box of chocolates, there was a mixed bunch. of offerings and for the 2019 edition, and only one stinker in the whole selection. 🙂

I was pleased to see that this edition’s editor was female – so often they are typically white males which usually means that 90 percent of the content are also white males. Fuller very ably turned that formula on its head and this book includes almost 50 percent female writers of mixed diversity. And funnily enough, the excellent quality of the writing doesn’t suffer for this proportion! 😉

Snide remarks aside, the writing topics varied from bachelorette parties in Nashville to a tiny village in China where dissident residents are taken on a “tourist” ride by the authorities to the aquatic world of the lion fish and its passionate followers.

In all honesty, I loved nearly all of the articles/essays included so I think that equals a great read for me. Referring back to the analogy of the box of chocolates, each essay hit the spot (apart from that one I mentioned earlier) and that might have been me just being a picky reader.

Authors included a wide variety (not sure of the ethnicity of these folks though) and their work had been published in an array of outlets, including Harper’s, Airbnb magazine, The New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine and more, but every essay included was extremely well written and well organized.

If I were teaching a creative nonfiction writing class, I’d certainly require my students to read some of the examples as models to follow.

This was a true joy to read at the start of the new year. Hopefully, it portends lots more “pure joy” reads in the near future!

In brief…

Although I have been somewhat absent from the blog (sorry), I have been busy doing other things. I’ve also been reading (albeit somewhat slower than normal) and I thought I would just do some short reviews about those titles:

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003)

An excellent read from Atwood, part one in the (sci-fi-ish) MaddAdam trilogy, and now I’m psyched to track down the next installment. I went to the library but someone else has the same idea and had checked out the one copy so, frustratingly, I have to wait. Waah. But at least I have about five quillion other titles from which to choose my next read whilst I cool my heels. 

Then I whipped through a quick and fluffy read of Katherine Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. It was ok but rather a forgettable read. My friend loved it, though, so perhaps take my experience with a grain of salt. It might have been me…. 😉

Now, I’m immersed in some excellent NF: America’s Best Travel Writing 2019 (Alexandra Fuller, ed.) and so since we can’t travel right now, this is the next best thing (since we can travel via the written word). A longer review to follow…

And then – guess what? It snowed seven inches last night and so we’ve been snuggled up inside when we haven’t been outside goofing around with Nova Dog (who ADORES snow). 

Plus – a jigsaw puzzle. Wow. I just love these things. 🙂

Catching up…

So, as mentioned in the previous post (re: me not being up to reading actual books), since I’m now feeling a lot better, I am now actually picking up books and having a lot of fun doing so. 

In the spirit of brevity, I thought I’d just do a quick review round-up of the titles I’ve finished up – a mix of both library books and my own TBR. To the reviews:

Cider with Rosie– Laurie Lee (1959). A reread but still very enjoyable. Absolutely delicious descriptions of England in the 1930s: the countryside, the food, the perspective of life as seen by a young happy boy… All good things. If you haven’t ever read this title (or perhaps it’s time for a reread?), then you wouldn’t go far wrong if you added this to your TBR pile. (TBR title).

The Best American Travel Writing 2019– Alexandra Fuller (ed.); Jason Wilson (series ed.). This is one of the NFs I have going on right now so review to come. (TBR title.)

Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood (2003) – This is one of the F I have going on right now so review to come with the end goal of me reading the whole trilogy. (Library copy.)

All Things Bright and Beautiful– James Herriott (1974). I was looking for some comfort reading at the start of December and then remembered how sweet the Herriott books can be. So, off the shelf with this one. And – it was a super read. (TBR title.)

A forgettable collection of essays by Nick Hornby (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) along with an actual DNF of another essay collection, this time by David Sedaris (2020). I’ve read other work by Sedaris and have found it to be a little patchy in quality, and this was the case with this selection of his work. (Library book.) 

Had the annual read of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol– just love Dickens’ writing and this story was an excellent start to the holiday season (library copy). Other seasonal reads included: Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (TBR copy), Tolkein’s Letters from Father Christmas (sobs but in a good way) (TBR copy). Carol Ann Duffy, England’s poet laureate (still?), had a short stocking=stuffer kind of read with Another Night Before Christmas (TBR copy) and then David Sedaris’ collection of holiday-related essays called A Christmas on Ice (TBR copy). (This book is pretty funny unlike his book mentioned above.)

John Steinbeck.

By then, I had had enough Christmas reading and started to move on to different titles on the TBR pile. I started with a John Steinbeck title, America and Americans, which collected together his thoughts on America (the country) and the people who live in it. Travel writing sort of thing and very good. 

Pulled a few graphic novel-type books for an afternoon of a different kind of reading. The best was the Get Fuzzy cartoon collection, but Honorable Mention should go to The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary, a graphic novel that details the Lizzy Borden murder case back in history. Really interesting, btw. (Library.) 

I whipped through a few books by English H.E. Bates: The Darling Buds of May, A Breath of Fresh Air, and When the Green Woods Laugh– a good selection of some strong English countryside writing. I enjoyed it at the time but I must admit it was more of a palate cleanser than an epic read. So, three more off the TBR. 

And then rounding out the holidays was a reread of Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise. This one I loved (see an earlier review of this read here) and after researching Zola a little more, realized that he has masses of other work out there so I’m excited to see what other titles I can find on the stacks. ETA: Just checked out Germinal by Zola, so we’ll see!

As the new year beckons, I raise a glass of champers to you and yours for a peaceful, productive and fun 2021. Happy reading ahead!

My year of reading…

New Year's Eve | CDC

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 2019 – 48. (Average: 4 books/mo.) This is waaaay down from a typical reading year, but then this wasn’t a typical year! I’m ok with that.

Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in January. 

This was composed of a focus on NF. (Actual numbers were 23 F and 52 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio, similar to last year’s total.)

Authors:  25 M and 23 F. I’m happy with this split…

Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC21 (44%. That’s pretty good, I think.)

Where were these books from? I’m pleased with this one: 69 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)

Publication details:

Number of pages: 13,961.

Year range of publication date: 1843 (A Christmas Carol/Dickens) to 2020 (various). 1996 average.

Shortest book length: 98 pp (When the Green Woods Laugh/H. E. Bates). Longest: 581 pp (Invisible Man/Ellison). 298 pp. average.

Overall, this was a fun reading year and I really enjoyed my focus on increasing the number of BIPOC authors in the list (42 percent of the reads were by BIPOC authors). Definitely going to continue with that campaign.

Another focus: reading more from my TBR. (Insert hollow laugh right here.) 😉

Additionally, I had two really good 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 2020? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun. 

My absence…

3D image of a cancer cell and lymphocytes.
3d illustration of a cancer cell and lymphocytes (Credit: Moffett Cancer Center.)

It’s been a busy few months for me and that has meant that my lovely blog has had to take a bit of a back seat to Life. I didn’t mean to leave you hanging, but needs must (as people say). 

The biggest thing since September was a surprise diagnosis of me with stage 3a stomach cancer. This rather threw our lives into a spin for a while, requiring surgery in Dallas, four rounds of chemo and a lot of vomit. 😦

I’m on the flip side of this diagnosis now, though, and am grateful for that. The surgery means that I don’t actually have a stomach any more (true), but modern medicine has made a replacement and now I’m learning how to eat with this new equipment. Every meal is an adventure, let me tell you. 

And what about the reading, I hear you ask? Ahh. I actually didn’t read books whilst I was dealing with that medical stuff. I just didn’t have the headspace to do that, so there was lots of magazine and website reading instead – just not any books. (I never thought that would happen, but since it did, that’s ok.)

Now things have calmed down, medically speaking, I find myself back to picking up books and enjoying them immensely. I’ll have the details to come in more posts, but suffice to say, I’m back on the blog again. 

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.)