The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke (2005)

Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.

Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai. You had me at hello.

This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.

So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. Giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating story…

Harkness with two of the young giant pandas she traveled with. (Credit: Mary Labisco.)

Some background: Harkness had met her husband socializing in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.

Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but she was quite wealthy, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, so Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)

This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.

It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.

And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.

Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. She felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).

It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.

Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and walk some of the same paths.

There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.

This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.

Recommend it.

Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

Another title pulled from the old TBR shelves (go me), I had little idea of what this was going to be about, apart from the fact it concerned a family who went back a few generations in the same old house somewhere. I vaguely knew Godden had grown up spending some time in India during the time of Raj, so I had an idea that they weren’t of a poverty-level background, and since I was in the mood for some family-saga reading…

So – what about “China Court”?

This was a fairly ok read. Nothing too spectacular, but if I’m honest, I spent a good two-thirds of the book being completely lost as to who was who in the story. There’s a family tree at the start of the book (which would probably have been helpful if I’d noticed it before the end of the book!), but since I didn’t know it was there – holy crud. I was lost. And then I just got lost-er. (New word for you.) 

I came this-close to giving it up as a DNF, but then, 75 percent of the way through it, it suddenly became really interesting (one of the characters had been secretly collecting books!) so I kept going until the end by which time I sort of knew who these family members were (and had them straight in which generation they were in). 

When I turned that last page, I finally was sorted out a bit more and actually, I went straight back to the beginning of the book and started to reread it (except this time knowing who each person was). This clarity meant it would have been a completely different read If I’d had the will to keep going through a second time, but it was not to be. 

So, a rather strange and never-ending read and although it may not have been the best read in the world this summer, I’m glad I read it. Actually, I’m even more glad that it’s off the TBR shelf as it opens up at least an inch of free space, width-wise.  🙂

So, you win some, you lose some. I’m quite content to cross Godden off the list now for future reads. One good thing: this rather dissatisfactory read did make the next book (title up in the next blog post) seem fantastic, so all was not lost. Sometimes you need to have a bad read to kickstart your appreciation of a good one. :-}

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women on whom Robinson makes mention includes a large number of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs.. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her, so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

Catching up: Midsummer edition

Well, well, well. Summer school has started and is now halfway over, so that’s why there’s been a drop in posts the last fortnight or so. It’s very fun to teach but I must admit that it definitely eats into my day, what with grading, prepping PPTs, and general admin, so reading seems to have fallen off the last few days. It’ll pick up in two weeks (when summer school’s over). Phew. 

Thought that this would be a good time to catch up with some of the more notable summer reading titles that I haven’t yet blogged about, so here you go. These haven’t been the only books I’ve read, but they are the books that have left an impression on me over the last few weeks or so. 

I am becoming pretty interested in autobios and biographies, so as I was strolling through the library shelves, I was drawn to a short biography of children’s author, Richard Scarry. My twin was very interested in Scarry’s books when we were growing up and so I picked this version up. It wasn’t a heavy-duty serious solid biography, but more of a conversation or dialogue with some of the people who knew him so it ended up a pretty lightweight read which was fine, since I was a bit brain-dead at the end of the semester when I read it. 

Then, I wanted to read from my TBR pile, so pulled a fairly recent buy for me called The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor, mainly because of two things: it was about a (fictional) music group from the eighties and the book was partly set in Luton, which is a fairly nondescript quite industrial town near to where I grew up. It’s not a town that leaps to mind for many authors and so when I saw that O’Connor had chosen it, it immediately went on to the list. 

It was a fun read that I gobbled down in just a few days and covers the life and evolution of a small group of friends who make up a band in their teenaged years and what happens to it (the band) and them as it evolves over time. Sad, funny – lots of great pop culture refs for those of us who came of age in that decade PLUS it kept mentioning landmarks that I had heard of. Well written story which kept me turning the pages. I’m on the lookout for more O’Connor (who’s actually a big Irish author so not sure why the attraction to Luton!) 

That was followed with a rather ponderous effort at reading Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers on my kindle. I’m about halfway through it right now, but it’s been put down for a week or two so I’m hoping that I haven’t lost the impetus to finish that title before I forget all the characters and what they’re doing!

Since it was summer and my brain was on holiday for a bit, I wanted a quick read that was also well written, so picked up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground which was an enjoyable romp and also gave me lots of examples of good grammar examples to show in class. (I know. Strange but true.) Features more of Tom Ripley’s adventures and was just a good read overall.

Then I soldiered through a nonfiction by Jonathon Raban called Hunting for Mister Heartbreak. I’d really appreciated one of Raban’s other reads (called Badlands [no blog post] about North Dakota, I think), so was rather hoping to replicate that level of read. I’d also enjoyed a book by Raban called Coasting (when he sails in a small boat around the coast of UK)…

Hunting for Mister Heartbreak was set to be a good read, going by the narrative arc: English man travels around America trying to find the essence of American-ness is various places, from the Florida Keys to the Deep South and in between. 

This book didn’t reach the same level of greatness that Badlands and Coasting did, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe this was an earlier volume and he hadn’t got his swing yet? There was quite a lot of him philosophizing about things in a rather superior way, and I think I just got tired of him judging the places and people who surrounded him. It just didn’t really come together and seemed more of a patchwork quilt just thrown together to create a bigger work. So-so, if you ask me, but another off the TBR pile, so that’s good. (I might be done with Raban now though.) 

Then summer school prep and the semester actually beginning which has meant more time prepping for class and grading work. I have a really good bunch of students this semester – summer school students seem to be a different breed than the long-semester ones and I’m enjoying the experience – but it’s definitely crazy-fast-paced for us to fit all the material in. Then, when summer school finishes in a couple of weeks, I get another couple of weeks off to recover and plan for the fall semester and then the school year begins again. I just adore teaching! (I hope the students enjoy it as well. :-}

Friday Flashback…

I found this little Librarian badge at the British Library in London, and had to get it since it reminded me of those long-ago school days when students were given “jobs” to do (along with special badges if you were lucky).

(This may have been a very 1960s/1970s English thing…)

Although I was sadly never offered the position of librarian, I would have jumped at the chance. Instead, I have this fabulous little badge to make up for that dreadful oversight.

(Our school used to give out “posture” badges, although I didn’t actually earn one. (My sis did though.) I may have slouched my way through my school days, I think…Tired arms and shoulders from swimming training?)

🙂

Random Vancouver pics…

Side by side contrast view of old hotel vs new one.
Fairmont Vancouver Hotel (with green roof). The old and the new co-exist happily in Vancouver.
A lovely face shot of hotel dog, a yellow Labrador.
A very sweet hotel dog who hangs out by the concierge desk at the hotel.
An example close-up of some aboriginal native art.
Example of aboriginal art at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
Pic of random guy having lunch in the architecturally interesting rooftop garden at VPL.
Great place for a lunchtime break at the VPL (in their rooftop garden).
Pic of some more aboriginal art on the street.
Example of some First Nations art style…
Pic of trans-welcoming bathroom signs.
Sign of the inclusive times in Vancouver: welcoming all at the VPL bathrooms.
Photo of lady on Vancouver street giving her pet duck a ride on a shopping trolley.
The lady taking her duck for a walk on the streets of downtown Vancouver. Because why not? 🙂

Active outdoor Vancouver…

View of Capilano Suspension Bridge as it crosses the chasm below. Lots of fir trees!
The Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver. (Pic from park website.)

Set in the lower left corner of Canada, British Columbia’s flagship city of Vancouver seems to have the best of everything in its location: close to the Pacific Ocean, close to mountains, plenty of green, easy to get to (good to and from airport transportation), friendly people… Plus, the locals tell us that it’s pretty moderate, despite being so north: medium summer and medium winter… (unlike Toronto, according to a couple of people, where temps are really hot in summer and really cold in winter. Is this true?)

Situated as it is on the west coast, Vancouver is also full of outdoor active choices, and the SuperHero and I wanted to make the most of some of these whilst we were there. Of course, limited time and finances meant that we couldn’t do everything, but after researching, it looked like the two things not to miss were both achievable and super-fun.

Our first outdoor adventure was a quick trip to the northern part of Vancouver and its surroundings to visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Set in the Canadian rainforest (which I hadn’t realized that Canada has), this national park features a lovely old cable bridge (which really sways) and a treetop wooden track which allows you to see the rainforest from high up in the canopy. (What a great idea.)

Birds-eye view of the wooden suspended path that takes you through the rainforest canopy at Capilano Bridge Park.
Part of the treetop wooden path that gives a birds-eye view of the canopy. (Pic from park website.)

I wasn’t really expecting that exciting a ride from the cable suspension bridge, but you know what? It’s actually much cooler than I had anticipated so poo on me for thinking that.

The bridge spans a large gorge (I think is the right term?) and is wide enough for two fairly typical height-weight appropriate people (or one rather large person). It’s built using cables so the bridge actually sways in the wind and wobbles from side to side, so you’ll probably need to grab the handrails at time to steady yourself and the view is outstanding. (Not recommended for perhaps very old or unsteady folks…)

Once you reach the other side of the cable bridge (which is the first thing to do when you enter the place) and have survived the overly-dramatic groups of teenaged girls walking across (:-)), then you get to go on the Treetop Adventure experience (which is the wooden track high up in the tree canopy that gives you a super-great view of life as a bird/squirrel). It’s sounds very plain-Jane, but is in fact a really nice experience as you get to look down and around from an unfamiliar view. (Plus – it’s so green!!)

And then towards the end of the trail, there’s a big climb up some stairs to reach a glass overhang than gives you a view of the rocky chasm right beneath you. Honestly. If you get the chance to see this place, it’s worth the effort to get there.

(And – what is really helpful is that the place provides a free shuttle from downtown Vancouver by the harbor so you can just jump on to that and get there really easily and cheaply.) Totes enjoyable.

Pic of bike-rider view of coastal bike path that hugs edge of Stanley Park.
The bike path that hugs the coastal edge of Stanley Park – fantastic!

The next day was also a super-fun outdoor experience when we rented assisted bikes (i.e. bikes with a little motor attached) and rode the wide and well-maintained bike path that takes you from, again, the downtown harbor to the nearby Stanley Park, a huge outdoor park place which juts out into the ocean with a well-designed bike/roller-blade path (separate from the walking path) to follow that hugs the coast.

(Note: You might want to take a light jacket with you since, due to the off-shore winds, the temp can get quite a bit lower than it is downtown. We could have used one each…)

The park is a lovely ride and has occasional stops for a quick coffee or similar, and the views are simply amazing. The bike rental place provided a lock, helmets and a map, and then it’s up to you. (Bike rental places are pretty easy to find, so no shortage of those.) Since we opted for the motor-assisted bikes, it wasn’t strenuous and kept it fun. We had a great time, to be honest. Worth doing and pretty affordable since the only thing you pay for is the actual bike rental, and our ride took about 2.5 hours in total.

After that, we hung out at the harbor for a bite to eat and to watch the cool sea planes land on the water, and then it was back to the hotel.

Vancouverites: thank you for a lovely and welcoming visit! We’ll be back. I’m curious how you guys handle winter! 🙂

Pic of five large painted totem poles in front of small patch of forest. Varying heights and designs.
Some of the authentic totem poles throughout Stanley Park.