Top Book Titles for 2019

Like so many others in the book-blog sphere, I enjoy taking a look back at what I’ve read over the past twelve months of 2019 – some have been complete winners and some not, but overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve read.

Big trends in choosing my titles have been mostly in choosing POC titles and topics and preferably the combo of both titles/authors of color. This has been eye-opening for me, and is a trend that will definitely continue over the future. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t really have to search out names and topics… Until then, I’m going to carry on this special effort to continue that focus until it’s a habit. It’s up to me to educate me, after all.

To the Top Ten Reads of 2019 (in no particular order):

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001) (F). A novel written around the time that I grew up in England so brought back many happy memories. Plus written in a very creative structure and approach. I have the sequel on the TBR. <rubs hands with anticipatory delight>

Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931) (NF/African-American/History). Just an amazing piece of historical lit… Should be required reading.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018) (F). An excellent fictional read written about Native Americans in the modern world by a young Native American writer.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017) (NF/history/Native American). True tale of a series of early 20th century murders in a First Peoples tribe which happened to own large swathes of land with oil reserves on it…

Greengates – R.C. Sheriff (1936) (F). A lovely straightforward mid-century British novel.

Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women – Nina Burleigh (2018) (NF/biography). Very useful in trying to understand (if I can) our perplexing president. If this is how he treats his spouse(s)… <smh>.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddartha Muhkerjee (2010) (NF/Science/Medical). Fascinating history and biography of cancer.

Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) (NF/sociology/African-American/race). (No blog post [only due to job busy] but you might check out this list of related AfAm NF titles I’ve read…) A timely NF that looks at race and how it plays out in the country today. Valuable on so many levels. We also saw the author speak – wonderful as well.

The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955) (F/short stories/spec pic). A collection of different spec fiction stories written by a master writer.

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015) (F). I know the author for his amazing NF book about a Siberian tiger, but here, he’s writing fiction about the plight of Mexican immigrants…

The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993) (F/spec fiction/sci fi). Really good sci fi novel by one of the first (and best) sci fi authors of color (also a woman). Try it even if you’re “not into sci fi”. It’s a good read, however you categorize it.

Other annual reading-related statistics:

  • Total pages read: 25,253 (average: 275 pp).
  • Total number of titles read: 94. (Compare with 2018: 77.)
  • DNFs for the year: 4.
  • Male: 42.
  • Female: 41.
  • Mixed gender (e.g. an anthology etc.): 11.
  • POC: 30 (for a total of 32%). Close to one in every three titles. Go me. 🙂
  • NF: 54 (57%)
  • F: 40.
  • TBR Titles: 60 off the TBR (of 64% of the total read).
  • Oldest title: 1836 (Charles Dickens/The Pickwick Papers).
  • Longest page number: The Thornbirds/McCullough: 692 pages.
  • Shortest page number: 32 pages (The Snowman/Raymond Briggs).

Happy new year (and happy reading ahead) to all!

December 2019 Monthly Reading Review

Artist: Nikolai Antonov.

December is wrapping up. It was a busy month but mostly fun, having Christmas and end-of-the-semester in there plus a great trip to New Orleans. (More to come on that trip.)

The reading was pretty good as well:

  • All-American Murder: The Aaron Hernandez Story – Alex Patterson (NF Sports). I know – a book about American football and me? But strangely interesting…
  • London and the South-East – David Szalay (F) Random pick of library shelves. Not bad…
  • Home-Fires: The Story of the WI in WW2 – Julie Summers (NF/History) Very good history of the Women’s Institute in England…
  • New Orleans: DK Guide. Travel guide.
  • Catchphrase, Slogan and Cliche – History – Judy Parkinson (NF/history)
  • Paddington Goes to Town – Michael Bond (F) Really needed something fairly easy and straightforward to read immediately post-semester!
  • The Snowman – Raymond Briggs (F/GN). See above.
  • English Country House Murders: an Anthology – Thomas Godfrey (F). See above.
  • Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah (F-Short stories). Challenging but in a good way.
  • Total books read:  9
  • Total pages read:   2511 pp. (av. 279 pp.)
  • NF4 (44% of monthly total)      
  • F: 5 (56% of monthly total)
  • TBR: 8 (89% of monthly total read). Go me.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 64%. (Happy with this number.)
  • Library:  
  • POC author/topic(s): 2 (22% of monthly total). Will. Do. Better.
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 2 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 0
  • Oldest title: 1969 (Paddington Goes to Town/Michael Bond…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 533 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 32 pp.

And – strangely enough, no relevant book review posts either. (There were some other posts but not about the actual books, which is weird for a book blog, yes?) I can only attribute this aberration to running out of time and energy at the end of the semester, but trust you’ll forgive me. 🙂

There was a lovely visit with my mum and, naturally, we completed a jigsaw or two, the large one was only completed with super-human effort by us both in an effort to finish it before she left early the next day. Completely fun and very worth it.

Just a fun little holiday puzzle… (500 pieces)
This was the puzzle that we needed to speed-complete. It was also the largest one (1000) — of course. 🙂

Moving into the new year, I don’t really have any complicated reading plans. I’m definitely going to partake in the Non-Fiction November when it comes around, but apart from that, I’ll take it as it comes. I might do Simon and Kaggsy’s Year Project but again, pretty open-ended on that right now.

I’m collecting info for the Best-of-Year blog post, but might skip the Best-of-Decade post that is traveling around the blogosphere right now. Depends on time…

Whatever your plans, wherever you may be – here’s to a year of peace and plenty for you. (Oh, and some good reads as well.) 🙂

FoL Winter Sale Goodies…

We had the annual winter sale for our local FoL and as usual, there was an abundance of goodies for all… (I know. It’s not that I *needed* some new titles, but who am I to turn down unfettered access to tons of good new-to-me titles?)

So, let’s go through which titles made it through my marketing filter (with rather big holes!). At the top pic, from L-R (vertical titles):

  • The Pottery Barn: Bathrooms (NF)
  • The Pottery Barn: Living Rooms (NF)
  • Workspace (another interior design book)

Moving to the horizontal pile, from the bottom up:

  • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (NF)
  • On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays – John Stone and Richard Reynolds (eds.)
  • Essays of E.B. White – E.B. White (love me some E.B.) (NF)
  • The Rosie Effect – Grahame Simpson (F) – continuation from The Rosie Project
  • The Barrytown Trilogy – Roddy Doyle (F)
  • Old New York – Edith Wharton (F)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot (NF? F?)

And then this pile as well above (<smh>) bottom to top:

  • “Dress Your Best” – Clinton Kelly and Stacy London (NF)
  • “What Not to Wear” – Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine (NF)
  • “If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home” – Lucy Worsley (NF – social history)
  • “Lost Country Life” – Dorothy Harley (NF)
  • “Days of Grace” – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (autobio)
  • “Great Tales of English History 2” – Robert Lacey (really interesting historian about UK history)
  • “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African” – Allison, ed. (NF/bio) 1798
  • “The Free People of Color of New Orleans” – Martha Gehman (NF/history)

And then this with the most gorgeous cover pic: “Living Earth” by DK Eye Witness (just love this series of books):

<rubs hands together with glee at glorious reading ahead>

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village – Ronald Blythe (1969)

“…making a strange journey in a familiar land…”

From the introduction, Akenfield (1969).

What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.

I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.

I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.

“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”

Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).

Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers, ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged in general).

In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).

This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the 1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be replaced by an unknown future.

Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in England. Highly recommended.

There’s also a 1974 film (loosely based on the book with Blythe himself playing a cameo role and in process of being digitized by the British Film Institute) and there’s an interesting article from the UK’s The Observer newspaper about a new study that will explore rural communities and the surrounding changing countryside (similar to Blythe)…

And here’s one about Akenfield 50 years on… (from the Daily Mail) and a Canadian author, Craig Taylor, has written an updated version of the book, Return to Akenfield (published in 2003).

Btw, the characters are real, but Blythe fictionalized the place using conversations with people from the hamlet of Debech (where Blythe actually lived) and Charsfield just 10 miles outside Ipswich.

Similar to this read:

Nonfiction November Week 5: Titles on the TBR?

Credit: Elaine Wickham.

NF November Week 5: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it to your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book. (Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?)

I have had a very fun time toodling around and visiting lots of people’s blogs, which (thanks to NF November) I was happy to find out there in the vast prairie of Blogland.

This week, we’re asked which NF titles had made it on your own TBR list. So many from which to choose, but here are a small selection that I’ll be looking for in the future. (Each title is also linked with the name of the person on whose blog I saw it. Except for that one when I can’t really remember whose it was. Just let me know though!)

  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (from Bryan at Still an Unfinished Person.) 
  • Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (from Hayley at Rather Too Fond of Books). 
  • Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help us Understand Ourselves – Laurel Braitmann (from Deb Nance at Readerbuzz).
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo. (From numerous bloggers, but for an example, Unruly Reader mentions it very nicely.)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (from Allison at Mindjoggle.)          
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson. (As with the Kondo book, several bloggers mentioned this, but for an example, Rennie at What’s Nonfiction? handles it well.) 
  • Playing DeadA Journey Through the World of Death Fraud – Elizabeth Greenwood. (Sorry – I just can’t track down who this rec came from, but let me know, and I am happy to get you that credit. Thanks.)
  • The Five: The Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Women – Hallie Rubenhold (from Doing Dewey).
  • And Brona’s (at Brona’s Books) has done a good job promoting Aussie lit (both F and NF)… 

Naturally, there were absolutely loads of other good titles, but these were the ones who came to mind today. Plus – I haven’t been through all the other NF Nov entries just yet, so more delights to come, I’m sure. 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Let me add a huge thank you to all the other participants in this year’s NF November and, of course, to the hard-working hosts of this year’s Nonfiction November: 

I’m already looking forward to 2020’s version! 🙂

Nonfiction November Week 3: Expertise

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject. 

I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree? 

Enjoy!

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years): 

AFRICAN NF:

(Now, I know this is NF November, but sometimes I think that fiction reads can really complement some NF reading so here are some recommendations that you might try…) 

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

COMPLETED AFRICA FICTION:

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN NON-FICTION:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Stalvey
  • Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the new First Lady – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram (eds)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell-Cole
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America  – Charisse Jones
  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America – Nicholas Lemann
  • Human Cargo – Matthew Crampton
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris
  • We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang
  • In the Land of Jim Crow – Ray Sprigle (1949 – earlier version of “Black Like Me”)
  • Writing from the Underground Railway – William Still (ed.) 

TBR AFRICAN (AND OTHER COUNTRIES’) NON-FICTION:

  • They Poured Fire on Us: The Story of Three Lost Boys from the Sudan – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945 – Stephen Bourne
  • My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face his Country, his Tribe and his Conscience – Rian Malan
  • A Walk around the West Indies – Hunter Davies 
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Everisto
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin DiAngelo

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

TBR AFRICAN FICTION:

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F)

FOR FUTURE READING:

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

Nonfiction November Week 1: The reading so far…

Intro by What’s Nonfiction?:

Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!

This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)

What has been your favorite NF read so far this year?
In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)

What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year?
Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.) 

This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.

That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!

Which NF book have I recommended the most this year?
Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!

What am I hoping to get out of NF November?

I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?

I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!

ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it.

I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

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. At this time in the world, 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 tale…

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

Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties 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 with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, 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. Once she was there, 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 to 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! 🙂