New Books for the TBR Pile.

After having had a three-month book-buying ban (which ended on May 01), there has been a lack of incoming titles to the JOMP TBR. However, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t accept a lovely literary present from a friend and it also meant that I could order books which arrived after that arbitrary date.

And thus, we have the following new titles to gloat over:

Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library – Wayne A. Wiegand. NF. I’ve been discovering pod casts on my daily work-out walks (since the gym is closed), and one of my favs is the one called “The Librarian is In” from the NYPL team. The cast features Frank and Rhonda (it was Gwen), and it’s just a funny and bright discussion about the wide variety of books that they have both picked up over the previous month. (I think it’s monthly.) Anyway, the guys were talking about the history of African-American libraries in the US and mentioned this title so off I toddled online and bought it. Basically, it’s about what it says in the subtitle: the history of American public libraries. <Rubs hands with glee>

The Secret Life of Cows – Rosamund Young. NF. My kind mum sent me a copy of this and I haven’t got around to reading this yet (although it’s short). I really wanted to get established in my head as a vegan eater before I could read about how lovely cows are, so now I’m definitely eating that way, I can read about cow sweetnesses. 🙂

The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.). NF. I thoroughly enjoyed my read of the travel writing the other day and so procured this volume, hoping for a similar experience. 🙂

And then a friend popped by (social distancing-wise) and dropped off a lovely art book called “Boundless Books: 50 literary classics transformed into works of art” by Postertext. A fabulous book to look at, it has lots of real classic books included, but by reducing the actual text of the books to a tiny size, the company has created art. Take a look here:

(Above) This is the actual text from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but see how each word has been shrunk to create more different art? And, even better, the book includes its own magnifying glass so you can actually read these tiny words. Here’s another page:

Here is the entirety of Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”. Clever, right?

So, I’ve been looking at this, drawing dragons for a 4yo friend who lives next door, doing jigsaw puzzles and — deep breath – completing final grades for my students. I’m hoping that’s complete now, but we’ll see who is happy with their grade and who is not. 😉

The Best American Travel Writing 2001 – Paul Theroux (editor)

Travel writing at its best… relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale.”  

Paul Theroux, Introduction.

Seeing as we have been rather stuck at home, I thought that now would be a really good time to read some travel writing and, having had some success with this series in the past, found an old volume on the old TBR shelves. I did have some hesitation seeing the editor was Paul Theroux (only because I’ve heard of his reputation as a rather grumpy writer), but pulled it down nevertheless, primarily because it was what I had. 🙂

In actuality, despite my initial reservations, this turned out to be a really good read. As with any kind of writing collection chosen by whoever is the editor, there are going to be hits and misses but this compilation was mostly hits, which made it fun to read. 

(The only slightly eye-wincing moment was when I saw that Paul Theroux’s eldest son, Marcel, was also selected as part of this collection of American Travel Writing. One, the optics don’t look that great for a father to choose his own son’s writing for inclusion in a project such as this, and is M.T.’s writing so much more superior than anyone else’s who was up for submission? Oh, and the gender split of authors was a bit eye-watering. This then leads on to related question: how many of these selectees are POC?) :-/

Looking through the index, the selected writing travels far and wide: from Siberia to the U.S. and parts in between, the quality of writing and its content was enjoyable. In fact, it was a really good read overall and actually hit the sweet spot for reading in a pandemic. Plus it fit really well with my COVID reading style which seems to be rather a scattershot approach at the moment. Plus it was a TBR.

Excellent writing came from Peter Hessler (who I adore anyway), Susan Orleans, and 24 other authors, with a gender break-up of five female authors (and 19 males). Grumble, grouse, but this lack of gender balance is a common characteristic for these editions (especially when they are edited by males). Is it really so hard to find someone who is a strong writer and is not a typical white male? Hmm. 

Moving on… The majority of these reads did exactly what they said on the tin: excellent writing combined with strong descriptions and interesting narratives of places off the beaten track. 

Despite its weaknesses (see above), I actually really enjoyed this volume and have just realized that I haven’t bought the 2019 volume just yet (edited by Alexandra Fuller – Hey! A woman slipped into the mix. I’m a bit behind with the book-buying.) This year’s volume (2020) will be edited by Robert McFarlane, another white male Oxbridge fellow, I see (with gritted teeth)…

Still, fingers are crossed to a more balanced gender breakdown inside both of these…

In the end, I am happy to have read this volume and able to travel outside my home, even if it was only in my mind. Along those same lines, I did just go to the grocery store, which counts as adventurous travel in this day and age. 🙂

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971)

I’ve finally found my reading mojo and so have been finishing a few titles which I thought I would review. I’ll start off with this one…

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971, Pulitzer Prize winner).

I do love some Stegner every now and then – typically very well written with true-to-life characters about whom you end up caring for the duration of the read. 

This one, Angle of Repose, has elderly protagonist Lyman Ward researching the life of his grandparents who had both gone to the American West as part of the pioneering mining-for-gold industry. 

Ward is trying to understand his grandparents via these old papers (including letters and diaries) which he has gathered from a local library, and interestingly, this novel is written as a mix of both a straightforward narrative looking back in time (from Lyman to the grandparents) and also as an epistolary novel (in that Stegner includes some slightly-fictionalized diary entries and letters from his grandmother character). 

So, this is the plot and the reader tracks along with Lyman as he ploughs through all this historical paperwork from his family. The reason why Lyman is doing this is fairly hidden until the last third of the novel, but this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book but does clarify a lot of what’s come before when you do learn this. (So, hold tight if you read this. Patience, my friend. It pays off.) 

The novel switches back and forth between his grandparents’ lives and times and Lyman’s current life, where he is now an elderly retired history professor who lives by himself and whose son believes that Lyman should really be living in an assisted living home. The old man is helped by various assistants who come in, and his observations about these people are sharp as a tack, so he’s obviously still got his intellect. It’s his physical body that is failing him, so it’s rather a race against time in some ways. 

What was really so interesting about this novel was the actual story of how Stegner obtained and then utilized the background materials for the historical underpinnings of the story. Let me tell you – it’s a corker… 

You may (or may not!) have heard of a real-life American woman called Mary Hallock Foote who was a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator of pioneer life in the West. She has left behind a bounty of handwritten materials about the early mining life for many Victorian pioneers, and she had the industry connections as well since her husband had been the mine superintendent for some time. Stegner’s two main grandparent characters closely mirror this same lifestyle in the book, although they are not portrayed in a very flattering manner (especially the grandmother).

Stegner, as a real-life English professor at Stanford University, included one of Foote’s stories in his American Literature class that he was teaching in 1946, and a grad student in that same class decided to write his dissertation on Foote. The grad student had learned that Foote had a granddaughter who was living quite close and so this student visited the family with the dual intention of both asking the family for the collection of papers to be donated to Stanford Library and also for using them for his academic work. 

The family gave the grad student permission to use the papers with the understanding that he (the grad student) would publish from their content and also supply the family with typed transcriptions of the actual letters. Years passed with no dissertation, but when the grad student gave up that goal, he passed the transcriptions on to Stegner who took them with him to read over a faculty summer. 

A few years pass and Stegner comes up with the book idea (very influenced by the transcript materials and also by some of the people he knows), and thus Angle of Repose is scribed. By this time, Stegner is familiar with one of Foote’s granddaughters and it is she who gave Stegner the go-ahead to use the family paperwork however he wished. 

The trouble arrived when the rest of the Foote relatives found this out and learned that the plot was very heavily based on Foote’s own life and times, and when you look at the parallels, it’s obvious.

The Foote family had believed that Stegner would follow Foote’s history more closely and give her credit where credit was due. Instead, Stegner really carbon-copies the Foote life but with his own characters and in doing so, ends up being accused of plagiarism. (The book’s introduction states that just over 10 percent of the actual novel uses Foote’s letters in toto but with no credit to the original author.)

Stegner does give his thanks and credit to a J.M. at the start of the novel, writing: 

“My thanks for J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” 

So, it seems to me that both parties were working under varying definitions of what a novel is (or “should be”) and exactly how much Stegner relied on the papers. Perhaps it’s more of a communication problem than anything, because I can’t see this misunderstanding happening nowadays since a legal representative would more than likely be present in a similar situation. 

In the end, Stegner stuck to his guns saying his novel was “based” on the historical papers, but how much is too much? Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee gave him the prize in 1971 (which probably did not help things between Stegner and the family!) 

A number of years later (and before the book’s publication), a scholar received funding to publish Foote’s actual reminiscences and although this was great news for the Foote family, it put Stegner on tricky ground since it would be apparently obvious upon whom his novel’s main protagonist was based upon.

To his credit, Stegner got in touch with the family and offered to change character names and action in the novel (to protect the anonymity of Foote as author), but the family member didn’t want that nor did she want to read the manuscript. So, the printing went ahead…

Another issue that cropped up was that some thought that Stegner co-opted the life of the Victorian female writer. As a privileged white male who worked in a university, there was some umbrage about this…

As for what I thought about the book: I thought it was a really solid straight-forward read. It kept my interest throughout (although there was some wandering in the middle third of the novel), and I did become attached to the central characters (even if I didn’t particularly like them as people). 

I can see why the Foote family was disenchanted with Stegner’s portrayal: the grandma in the book is petulant and immature throughout her ENTIRE life on earth, holding her husband responsible for taking her away from her cultured East Coast friends and the letters which are quoted provide evidence of her small-mindedness and resentment (that NEVER goes away). 

I suppose in Victorian times, marital separation (let alone divorce) was very frowned upon but the couple were out West where laws only played a secondary role in life, so why didn’t she just up-sticks and move back East? And her husband was portrayed as a big dreamer in business without the skills to follow through on his ideas, but Heavens to Betsy – leave him. Instead, there are years of moaning and complaining about the life they lead (which, TBH, does sound hard), but then again, no one has a gun to his (or her) head. 

Apart from the niggling irritation with the couple, the actual writing and descriptions of the Western mining camps and their inhabitants was lovely. Stegner was a great writer – I have no doubts about that. 

I do wonder what he was thinking when he took this Victorian figure, unknown but hallowed by her immediate family, and then twisted her story very slightly (and not always in a positive light). I suppose he thought that he’d given the family the chance to review the manuscript and they had chosen not to, so it was a done deal. 

But don’t let all this drama overshadow the fact that Angle of Repose is truly a good novel. Think of it as an interesting sideline. 

And, I learned that the phrase “Angle of Repose” is from physics and is the actual angle at which material, when it’s piled up in a cone shape, actually stops moving – it reposes. Imagine a pile of sugar – the angle at which it settles and finally stops moving – that’s the angle of repose. 

The title (and its meaning) also opens up another can of worms, as the grandparents live an itinerant life moving from mine to mine — so do they actually reach their own “Angle of Repose”? You’ll have to read to see.

Swabbing the decks…

Well, I apologize for that unintended slightly-longer-than-I thought break there. Life has gone a little awry (just as it probably has for you all as well), and it’s taken me a little bit to get my bearings back. Our university classes all had to be moved online in a remarkably short amount of time, and it seems that I have spent most of the last couple of weeks either online in workshops learning how to do this effectively or messing around with the software needed to do it. 

However, I feel more comfortable with the software now and have a stronger idea of just how to make this transition work for both the students’ academic experience and my own personal one. I’ve learned to keep things as simple as possible and we’re all taking it day by day. 

Like an awful lot of others out there in book-blogging land, I found it hard to concentrate on reading for a little while, but this is coming back to me now. Thank goodness. 

Anyway, I thought I would make this post more of a catch-up post than anything and then I can move onto getting back into the swing of things. 

So – to the reading. I really enjoy Cathy746’s blog which focuses on reading from Ireland, and when I learned that she would be running February as “Read Ireland” month, I really wanted to join in with that. I toddled off to the TBR shelves and read the following as a tribute to the Emerald Isle: 

  • Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (F)
  • Death in Summer – William Trevor (F)
  • The Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy (F)
  • The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind – Billy O’Callaghan (F/short stories). 

For two titles without links, I’m afraid that I didn’t write up official reviews for them. However, I can report that the Binchy was a great read – like “a big cup of tea with chocolate digestives” good read and it hit the spot at a time when stress was quite high re: the class online transition. (To give you an idea of that, I have never taught online nor have I ever taken a class online, so I had a lot of learning to do! I’m much more comfortable with the whole process now, thankfully to the high level of support from both the university and my faculty colleagues.) 

The O’Callaghan short stories were good with a couple of great ones in there. I think reading short stories as a unit is a bit of a gamble, and to be honest, I’m not convinced that reading the stories one after the other (as I did with this title) was the best way to experience them. I think I’ll probably make more of an effort to spread out the short-story reads a little more in the future. I bet that is a completely different reading experience that way. 

Anyway, O’Callaghan is an Irish author and this was a good read. I also have one of his novels on deck so perhaps that might be more up my alley. 

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Another read that was definitely up my alley was an old collection of themed essays from the acclaimed zoologist Sir David Attenborough. Called “Journeys to the Past”, this collection of writing pieces goes back to the 1960s when Attenborough was traveling to far-flung places such as Madagascar, Tongo and Australia’s Northern Territories “doing what he does best, journeying with camera and pen to observe animals and tribal customs in some of the remotest parts of the world,” says the book cover. 

Although written 60 years ago, this essay collection more than meets the mark for excellence in nonfiction writing. I had wondered if there would be some non-PC descriptions of places and peoples, but there were none. (I shouldn’t have worried. It was Attenborough, after all.) A thoroughly enjoyable armchair travel with an erudite and humorous host who plainly adores what he was lucky enough to do. He’s is just as thrilled meeting the local tribal representatives and learning their customs, despite his main focus being on animals, and his enthusiasm and respect for the individuals who he meets in the course of his travels were a balm for this frazzled soul. 

This was by far one of the best of the reads I’ve had in the past few weeks, and if you’re looking for some gentle reads combined with some far-off travel (from the comfort of your own shelter-in-place home), then you won’t go wrong with Sir David. 

A completely different read from Attenborough was a short read by NYT critic, Margo Jefferson, who wrote a small collection of provocative essays about Michael Jackson. (Yes, that Michael Jackson. Thriller one.) Jefferson takes a pretty academic lens to Jackson’s life and provides much food for thought about him. I’m still thinking about this read and am contemplating putting together a full review of this book since it’s got a lot of material inside the slim page count. (I’ve read some other Jefferson work: check out the review of Negroland here.)

So, I’ve been reading. And napping. And learning new software. And playing with my animals. And going for walks. And more napping. 🙂  I’m planning on adding more reading to this list from now on. 

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.

Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)

At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)

As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.

African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).

She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.

Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.

However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).

This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.

(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon (when he was still speaking with her ref: above parag.). (NYT.)