The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015)

This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.

It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…

As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)

It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)

As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.

And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.

There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.

And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.

Super-good read.

(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?

OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)?  Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)

For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).

A Book on Medical Discourses in Two Parts – Rebecca Crumpler, M.D. (1883)

My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)

Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…

(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are but still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (1913, US Census Bureau).)

Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.

Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very courageous and determined she was:

  • 1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
  • 1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
  • 1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
  • 1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)

But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the medical college.)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, doctress.

So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!

Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American populations as well…)

It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:

Baby health advice (under 5s):

One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂

All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “  (Chapter 5)

If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat, Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t give the baby “soot tea”, by any means.

Saffron tea is really crocus tea?  And was popular for baby’s poop problems?

Don’t give infants a “little weak toddy” to “bring up wind and make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may “inculcate a desire for tippling in many of our weak-minded youth”.

Later on: watch out if giving your baby any alcohol: it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”  

And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)

And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.

And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them” – the habit needs to “vanish like dew before the noonday sun” …

Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).

If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom

Teething and not wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.

Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…

Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…

If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So . – try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…

If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)

Reading for kids is also dangerous:
Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?

For a breast-feeding mother:

If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get hold…” !!

(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)

If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being hungry).

Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was sieved with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”…  But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.

Do try to avoid cholera if you can:

There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation – it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive (or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children (and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…

Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)

Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)

And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic, it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread cholera.

And who’s responsible for all this?…

Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.

Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)

(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)

Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that women “appear to shrink from any responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.

She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the weather.’’

Advice for women’s health in general:

Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren, have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).

Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)

Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.

Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.

(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…” Huh.

Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…

Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines (especially those that contract or depress muscles): “may cause suffocation and death at any moment.”

Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork, gaseous vegetables, and anything that depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should help.

Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.

Fascinating stuff!

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis (2004)

We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. Jonathon Swift (1667-1745)

Shuffling along the animal shelves at the library and searching for something rather fun to read to recover from some recent not-so-great book experiences, this title, with its promise Sweetness and Light and honeybees, jumped into my little mitts. What’s not to love about the humble bumble bee? (Actually, serious question: are honey bees the same as bumble bees? Actually, there is quite a lot of difference, I learned.*)

This was a curious read for me. The author writes well, so that was lovely, but there was a general feeling when I finished it, that she may have been a little thin on material and so there was quite a mishmash of info in this volume. Its subtitle focuses on the “mysterious history” of the honeybee, and although bees have been around for hundreds of years, no one really knows how they evolved (if they have evolved even) so the starting chapters on the early history of these insects were rather speculative in nature. (But then anyone’s writing would be on this topic, since no one really knows for sure.)

I definitely think the strongest part of the read was in the middle section when Ellis is focusing on the true hard facts of honey life and culture: how the queen bees live, the roles of the worker and the drone bees etc. And, in fact, that is more along the lines of what I was really looking for when I chose this book: more of a biography than a history, really.

Despite this, I learned a ton more about bees in general: that their houses are called skeps, that they are dying off from different causes (including epidemics of mites), that different honeys have different flavors depending on the flora the bees found… I loved learning these facts and even (superficially) deliberated on whether the hubby would go for a beehive in the garden. (Not too enthusiastic about that idea.)

So, for a random pick off the shelves, this turned out to be a fast and interesting read about some creatures who play an important but usually unheralded role in the world around us. I’m still dreaming of having a beehive, but in reality, I’m a complete woose when it comes to the world of insects landing on me. But it’s good to dream…

And is there honey still for tea?” (from poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brookes – 1912.

*Bumblebees are rounder, “large in girth”, more hairy and colored with yellow, orange and black. Bumblebees can sting multiple times. Generally, honeybees are more slender, less hairy and have a pointy stomach. Honeybees can only sting once. I’m still going to run screaming from bees though, so not certain that I’ll have the peace of mind to check about the shape of their tummies. 🙂

Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (1994)

For my next read (this one from the TBR shelves), I pulled “Snow Angels” by Stuart O’Nan (1994). O’Nan and I have crossed paths with previous reads (see Emily Alone (2011) [which I loved], The Odds (2012) and Wish You were Here (2002)) and a movie (Last Night at the Lobster Café), and we really have rather a mixed view of each other. (He’s a little middle-aged male angst-y for me at times, although Emily Alone was nothing like that.) So in a past FoL Book Sale, I had tracked down another of his titles and that is what I pulled off the shelf for this read. It looked like a pretty solid run-of-the-mill American drama read.

And it was, overall. It’s a short read, but it covers a lot of mileage. Let me steal the description used for the 2008 movie-of-the-book from Rotten Tomatoes:

Waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has separated from her suicidal alcoholic husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Glenn has become an evangelical Christian, but his erratic attempts at getting back into Annie’s life have alarmed her. High school student Arthur (Michael Angarano) works at Annie’s restaurant, growing closer to a new kid in town, Lila (Olivia Thirlby), after class. When Glenn and Annie’s daughter go missing, the whole town searches for her, as he increasingly spirals out of control.

So, right from the get-go, you (as the reader/viewer) know it’s not going to be a huge barrel of laughs. It is rather sounding as though I didn’t really enjoy this novel, but it’s not that I didn’t “enjoy” it so much as that it was a little (a lot) darker than I had hoped for. (My fault. I accept that. There are lots of clues in the description about how dark it could be and I just didn’t pick those up.) Despite this unrelenting shadow over the story, it was still a pretty good read.

This title was about a small group of very normal people living their lives in a cold and grey northern U.S. town and where one of their young children disappears… (So – no. Not a lot of happy in that plot, is there?…)

But despite the plot being pretty bleak, it was a good read that kept me turning the pages to see how things turned out for these characters. One of the protagonists is young Arthur, a typical middle-school-aged boy whose life has been torn apart from his parents’ divorce and who is directly impacted when his much-loved former babysitter suffers from a litany of rather tragic events. And Arthur, actually, was the reason why I kept reading as these awful events occurred, I just had to make sure that Arthur was still soldiering on ok.

O’Nan is a good writer overall. He has some strong descriptive skills and he can pull together a cast of characters about whom you unexpectedly care. I think where the trouble lay was that there were no glimmers of happiness for any of his cast – none of them – and the lives that lay ahead of them were obviously not going to improve much over the years.

I think that if you enter into this read KNOWING that it’s going to be a rather gloomy book with characters who are surviving their lives (more than enjoying them), you’ll be ok. Honestly, the actual story was good – it was just a little too dreary for me, I think. I would have liked just a sprinkling of positivity for just one of the characters… So – I think O’Nan and I are done now. Thanks for the reads, sir (especially Emily Alone*). It’s not you. It’s me. :-}

And now I’m reading a NF that is taking a close look at honeybees… (Flowers. Summer months. Sunshine. Just a bit of a change of pace from the previous read!!) Along with this brilliance, another bright spot is that the annual FoL Book Sale is this weekend! Yabba dabba doo.

  • And Emily Alone is so good, that it’s probably going to be reread. Yes. That good.

Merry Hall – Beverley Nichols (1951)

WARNING: GRUMPY REVIEW AHEAD. Nichols’ fans may want to avert their eyes. :-}

As sometimes occurs, I’ve been reading but the actual titles haven’t really been lending themselves to a great deal of critical thinking and higher-level commentary as do some others. <jk> That (combined with a limited amount of time) means that every now and then, you’ll have a survey-type post of recent reads. This, my friend, is one of those times. 

Let’s begin with the pretty-awful-terrible reading experience of Beverley Nichol’s “Merry Hall”. Published in 1951, this is a collection of magazine columns (I think) written by Nichols when he bought a rundown mansion out in the English countryside. Others have read this (and his other titles) and reported it as charming and funny, so that is what I was rather expecting. However, it was not to be. (And it was not to be by a really long shot. A miles-long shot, in fact.) 

It started off ok. Nichols had some glimpses of charm here and there, but as the book progressed (along with the refurbishing of the house and the garden), I found him to be quite an awful person. He was such a snob and was riddled with class awareness giving the impression that he was above everyone else (especially the workers from the village who actually did most of the heavy lifting in this renovation). He was also uncomfortably racist in how he described the people who surrounded him and don’t even get me started on his attitude to women… 

I know. I know… It was published in 1951 so wouldn’t these classist/racist/misogynistic attitudes have been more accepted during that time? I considered that line of thought, but then remembered that there were other authors who also were writing and publishing during those years who didn’t have that same approach to the other humans on earth.

Think of E.B. White, for example. He didn’t view the world in those terms at all, so I don’t think it really holds that you should excuse Nichols for his narrow-minded attitude to others as “part of that time”. My argument is that IF these attitudes were part of that time, then wouldn’t everybody have a trace of them somewhere in their writing (if they published their work then)? And “everybody” doesn’t.

And therein lies the rub. I think that other people may have the right idea (that previous well-established attitudes and beliefs fall out of favor over time), but to me, I just don’t agree that Nichols was just being a product of the 40s and 50s. I think he was actually just being a selfish twittish snob who had too much money, not enough education and not enough to do. 

So, despite the fact that LOADS of other people out in bloggerland love Nichols, I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree to disagree on that. He had some good descriptions of his garden and the plants, but GRR. I just couldn’t stomach the rest of the book so ended up with a DNF. I hope the Nichols fans can forgive me.  

(See my next post for the next reading review. Very different from Nichols!)

Vacationland – John Hodgman (2017)

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

Lottery – Patricia Wood (2007)

This was a random FoL book sale pick and from just reading the back-cover blurb, it seemed like it had the potential to be a good read. So I chose it. Then it sat on the shelf for about two or three years until the other day, when I pulled it down and read it. I still had very little idea what to expect during the read itself, but you know what? I was surprised. It was a good one.

It’s a novel and a fast-reading one at that. It’s not fast-reading because it’s written in a simple manner – it’s simply fast-reading because I ended up really caring about the main characters and how their lives ended up, and when I turned that last page, it was a read where you emit a sigh of satisfaction as you close the cover.

So – what’s it about? It’s a novel that follows some of the life of Perry J. L. Randall (the “L” stands for “lucky”) who is a developmentally-challenged man who wins the Washington State Lottery when he is thirty. What happens to him after this life-changing event is the narrative arc of this story. However, kudos to Patricia Wood for not choosing the simple “Forest Gump” way out of the story though. It’s definitely a thoughtful read.

Perry is independent in his own way, as much as he can be. He was raised by his grandma and when she died, he was at a loss. A job at a marine supplies company saves the day for him and provides him not only with meaningful work but also a support team of friends and colleagues who will look out for him. Things really get interesting when Perry wins the lottery ($12M)…

It’s not a mind-shattering read, but if you’re looking for a fairly uncomplicated (without crossing over into “too simple”) read with believable characters about whom you’ll think when you’re not even reading the book, you’ll like this novel.

Wood is (was?) actually a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii who was studying disability rights, and so she is well-versed in how to include a developmentally-challenged protagonist in a respectful and inclusive way (even to the point of writing it from Perry’s own POV and in his own style). I enjoyed it and it was a good reminder that there are still good people out in the world.

For a random read off the shelf, this was a solid effort. I enjoyed it. Plus – another one off the TBR…

(Another random fact: Wood’s own father actually won his state’s lottery in real life.)

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.