The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough (1977)

Chatting with a friend about books (of course), she happened to mention the title of this 1977 best-selling multi-generational Australian novel that tracks the Cleary family as their lives play out at a fictional sheep station in the Outback and one that I had somehow missed during my teenaged years.

At this point (close to the end of the semester), I’m more or less brain-dead so I was looking for a non-complicated fairly straight-forward knife-through-butter read, and thus: The Thorn Birds was selected.

And, despite my rather low expectations for the quality of this read, it ended up being a very enjoyable multi-generational romp across this family’s history in Australia. (And if I’m honest, it was actually MUCH better than I had anticipated, so that’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.)

Spanning the years 1915-1969 and crossing the world in its narrative arc, McCullough masterfully keeps control of the huge number of characters and events that make up this plot, and it’s written in such a way that despite this huge spread of variables, it wasn’t confusing at all. So – kudos should go to the author for that.

And even though the book is a complete and total beach read, it also happens to be very well written (apart from the odd printing typo here and there) and so that added to the overall experience as well. Oh, and it was nearly unputdownable at the same time. Really – the whole thing took me by surprise.

So briefly, the narrative follows the lives and times of Paddy Clearly, a new Irish immigrant who’s landed in Australia as a farm worker. It’s Paddy and his (many) descendants who form the core of the character line-up in the story, and although I was a bit concerned about keeping everybody straight at the beginning, there was very little confusion as to who was doing what when to whom, a fact that really impressed me as I turned the last page.

So, if you’re in the market for a good old-fashioned straight-forward and compelling beach read this summer, this title would be a good choice for you. It’s easily available (thus cheap and easy to get a copy), it’s well written, and if you’re like me, you’ll gradually become more and more invested in how the lives of several generations of the Cleary family turn out.

This was a fun read, completely outside my usual selection but good nevertheless. Perfect for the almost-summer-vacation brain that I have at the moment. 🙂

April 2019 – Reading Review

The reads for April 2019 included:

So — to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in April 20195.
  • Total number of pages read 1,599 pages (av. 319). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for May include continuing the POC author/topic focus and my focus on my own TBR.  And summer break! 🙂

New arrivals at JOMP

I’ve had a few new titles turn up on the doorstep at Chez JOMP, so thought I’d let you see what they were. (I always try to be a good host. 🙂 )

(Note: Each description has been lifted from the Amazon page for each title.) 

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power – Anna Merlan. (NF)

A riveting tour through the landscape and meaning of modern conspiracy theories, exploring the causes and tenacity of this American malady, from Birthers to Pizzagate and beyond. (Hat tip to What’s Nonfiction? for bringing this title to the top for me.)

The Thrill of It All – Joseph O’Connor (F)

At college in 1980s Luton, Robbie Goulding, an Irish-born teenager, meets elusive Fran Mulvey, an orphaned Vietnamese refugee. Together they form a band. Joined by a cellist and her twin brother on drums, The Ships in the Nightset out to chase fame. But the story of this makeshift family is haunted by ghosts from the past. (Interestingly (for me), I happened to grow up pretty close to Luton and I must admit – there are not that many books written about this place. So I’m curious to read it and see what he has to say about it.)

The Secret Life of Cows – Rosamund Young (NF)

At her famous Kite’s Nest Farm in Worcestershire, England, the cows (as well as sheep, hens, and pigs) all roam free. They make their own choices about rearing, grazing, and housing. Left to be themselves, the cows exhibit temperaments and interests as diverse as our own. “Fat Hat” prefers men to women; “Chippy Minton” refuses to sleep with muddy legs and always reports to the barn for grooming before bed; “Jake” has a thing for sniffing the carbon monoxide fumes of the Land Rover exhaust pipe, and “Gemima” greets all humans with an angry shake of the head and is fiercely independent.

Perfect English Grammar – Grant Barrett (NF)

Language learners of all levels can turn to this easy-to-navigate grammar guide again and again for quick and authoritative information. From conjugating verbs to crafting sentences to developing your own style, Grant Barrett provides you with the tools and motivation to improve the way you communicate.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (F)

At its simplest, Anna Karenina is a love story. It is a portrait of a beautiful and intelligent woman whose passionate love for a handsome officer sweeps aside all other ties – to her marriage and to the network of relationships and moral values that bind the society around her. The love affair of Anna and Vronsky is played out alongside the developing romance of Kitty and Levin, and in the character of Levin, closely based on Tolstoy himself, the search for happiness takes on a deeper philosophical significance. (Thought this would be a good summer project.) 

Milkman – Anna Burns (F)

In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him―and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend―rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.

Inside the Kingdom – Robert Lacey (NF about Saudi Arabia)

Assesses the paradoxical nature of modern Saudi Arabia to explain the clash between contemporary technology and a powerful religious establishment grounded in thousand-year-old traditions, exploring events in recent history that have brought about current conflicts.

Plus – the annual summer read of the AP Style Manual. 🙂


There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.) 

Swabbing the Decks: Recently Read Reviewlettes

Lots of being busy has led to a lack of posts here on the blog, and I apologize for that, dear reader. I’m planning on this being a catch-up post of sorts so that I can get back onto schedule. 

So I’ve been reading for sures – I seem to have retrieved my reading mojo after having it slip out of view in March, and luckily, the titles that I’ve been choosing have been really good. (It’s nice when things align.) 

I had noticed that I had slipped off the wagon for reading from my own TBR over the last few weeks, so pulled an old Oprah read from the shelves: “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” by Pearl Cleage (1993). 

It’s been a while since I’ve chosen a title that reads like a “hot knife through butter”, so searching for that experience and hoping that this wasn’t a misery novel (as can be Oprah’s wont with her books), I found this to be a fun and optimistic read. It’s also particularly noteworthy as it was published back in 1993 and features an HIV-positive woman as the protagonist. 

Why was it noteworthy in 1993? Because the AIDS pandemic was in full swing, a mix of homophobia and denial across the U.S. (and my city) was common, and I was an AIDS educator in a medium-sized Bible Belt community (ref: homophobia and denial [for some groups] mentioned above).

Oprah choosing this title was a great way to reach an audience who wouldn’t automatically be informed about the disease. It was cleverly wrapped up in a cheerful novel featuring women, and it was Queen Oprah who chose it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at that time, I can see that she made a brave choice.

This is a homecoming-type novel, where the protagonist goes back to her small hometown after leaving Atlanta, the “Black Mecca” as the author calls it. Typical of a homecoming, she reconnects with old friends, makes new friends, and then makes new plans for the rest of her life. 

It’s well written, it’s easy to digest, it’s a fun read. Glad I reread this one, as I didn’t remember a thing about it from the first time. Plus – it was really interesting to place it in the context of history. Good one.

Pulling another read from the TBR pile, I chose “Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Anthology,” edited by Charles d’Ambrosio. As I was looking for some longform nonfiction and/or essays to read, this fit the bill completely for me, and I whipped through it. 

As is typical for most anthologies, there were some hits and misses but overall, it was a good read. What was a minor irritation, though, were the typos spread quite liberally throughout the pages. I kept checking to see if it was an advance copy (or similar), but no. It was the final proof and just had typos. Grr. 

Moving on from the typo situation, d’Ambrosio had selected some good essays and/or narrative nonfiction and I managed to glean some author names to search for in the future. Plus, in the end, the title did have more good reads than bad ones, so I consider that a win. Plus – off the TBR pile! 

During Spring Break, my mum had brought me an old Virago copy of “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West (which was a new read for me). Expecting a rather prickly reading experience, this one ended up being really enjoyable and I actually read it twice, back to back, just to look at how the narrative arc was structured since it was done so well. I’ll be looking for some more by Sackville-West and her gang in the future.

Now, the end of the semester is in sight for both students and teachers, Spring time is here in our area of the country, and things are turning green again. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees this week and I’ve just found out that I’m probably going to go to a work conference in Vancouver.

Life is really good. I hope you can say the same. 

March 2019 reading review…

March passed by in a flash and that speed-of-light passing was reflected in my reading totals for the month. At first, I thought this low number was quite strange, but when I look back at other past March reading totals since I started teaching, I can see it’s historically this way. I think I forget just how busy and occupying teaching can be sometimes. Plus – there were Spring Break travels!

Still, no worries. 

The reads for March 2019 included:

And wow. No review blog posts. Gasp. Never mind. I’m going to do a recap post with some reviewlettes in a bit to get me back up to speed… 

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in March 20195
  • Total number of pages read 1,219 pages (av. 244). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for April include continuing the POC author/topic focus, finishing up a read of a teaching skills book, and placing my focus back on my own TBR. 

February 2019 – Reading Review

February turned out to be a reading-heavy month, which was fine by me and I enjoyed the majority of the titles. Since it was also Black History Month in the U.S., I usually try to put a heavier focus on POC authors and topics, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the number of POC titles I actually completed this year. (I enjoyed the majority of the reads, but the total itself just wasn’t as many as I had hoped for. I think the flu was responsible for some of that.) No biggie.

Still, better than nowt and all is good. I’ll just carry on with this POC focus throughout the rest of the year, as I have done for the past few years.

The reads for February 2019 included:

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in February 201911
  • Total number of pages read 2,814 pages (av. 256). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / 10 non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-book. (I know that this total equals more than 11, but the e-book was an owned book, so counts for two categories. Seeeeeee?)

Plans for March include going to Graceland and some reading. And probably a jigsaw puzzle as I haven’t done one for ages… 🙂

See Now Then – Jamaica Kincaid (2013)

Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John [1985]) and Lucy [1990]), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.

WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.

I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the world. It did have all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you have one rather confused reader.

(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )

The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet  (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.) 

And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)

I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page). Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still, quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own personal experiences though.)

Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂

So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.

If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).

This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001)

Another read from the TBR pile (go me!), this is a novel that revolves around the life and times of a young teenaged boy growing up in Birmingham, UK in the 1970s. It’s from the POV of young Ben Trotter (called Bent Rotter by his friends), a beginning romantic poet and musician schoolboy who’s head over heels in love with Cicely Boyd, one of the most beautiful girls at their partner school for girls. And although it’s written with this guy’s POV, it also is heavily influenced by the current affairs of England at the time: the never-ending strikes for coal, car-makers, and others. The IRA formation and its bombings. (We would have bomb drills at school growing up.) Progressive and punk rock. (Plus there are some similarities in character between this protagonist and Adrian Mole, although this is much much more serious in nature.)

It also happens that this protagonist is much the same age as I happened to be during this time, so there were a lot of cultural references mentioned that resonated with me as I was growing up in England.

I had been on the lookout for a gritty domestic novel, something along the lines of an “Angry Young Man” or a gritty kitchen-sink drama, and this one fulfilled that category perfectly. It is gritty – a lower-middle-class family living in an industrial city working in a car factory facing union employees and dilemmas.

Jonathan Coe, author.

It’s quite a serious book in some ways: it deals with love (young love, marital love, affairs), it deals with political issues (the strikes, the unions, the IRA), it deals with class, but it’s all presented in such a way that it’s actually pretty hilarious in places. It uses a deadpan satirical perspective which matches the grey cold and damp country in which it is placed, and the world of the 1970s provides a matching cold and damp background. (Thatcher is Prime Minister, the National Front makes an appearance…)

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Young Ben, the protagonist, is yearning to be a serious poet/musician (Coe is a musician as well), and writes experimental music which he believes is meaningfully beautiful, but he is surrounded by his friends who labor under more prosaic goals: getting a girlfriend, trying not to be embarrassed by their parents and/or siblings, struggling to get through school and the rather Lord-of-the-Flies culture that exists in that world.

(Random but interesting: “The Rotter’s Club” is believed to have the longest sentence ever written in the literature of the English language: 13,995 words (ahead of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom in “Ulysses”. Not that I’ve read that, mind you.)

The book is fairly straightforward in how it’s structured, but the straight narrative is interspersed with excerpts of letters, leaflets, and articles from the school magazine, including this longest sentence. (It goes on for thirty-three pages.)

There are several stories interwoven throughout the book, both tragedy and comedy, and there are some serious moments as well, particularly with regard to how some of the characters feel about religion, but it all fits together very well.

And – good news for me – Coe has written a sequel featuring this same group of characters except set in the 1990s. Going to have to keep a lookout for that title (“The Closed Circle” [2004]).

Screen Time….

There’ve been some good movies lately, so thought I’d bring you a couple of thoughts about two that we’ve seen in the past month or so. Both of them were good (although one was miles better than the other), and both were pretty different from each other. 

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’d been curious about seeing Bryan Cranston/Kevin Hart’s project called “The Upside.” The trailer had made it look like a light-hearted comedy (and Hart is a comedian) so that was the approach I’d taken and was expecting. It was a pretty good movie, but the end result was that I felt that the producers couldn’t decide if they wanted this to be a comedy or a serious drama. Due to this indecision, it felt like the movie didn’t really reach either of these goals and so I walked out feeling slightly dissatisfied. 

It’s got a fairly standard plot line contrasting two very different characters who are more or less forced to be together and then hijinks result. Cranston’s character is a quadriplegic who happens to have oodles of money. He needs to hire a full-time live-in caregiver and that’s the (slightly clumsy) way that Hart’s character is introduced – as a candidate for that position. Hart, on the other hand, is a foul-mouthed newly-released ex-con who has to prove to his probation officer that he’s been applying for jobs. Hart needs a signature on his form to show that he’s been on a job interview, and so this is how the two people cross paths. 

(You know, it reminded me of the older movie called “Trading Spaces” with Eddie Murphy which has a similar set up between its characters, and is actually, you know, funny.…) 

However, as mentioned, the movie couldn’t decide whether to play up the comedy angle (two colliding worlds) or whether it would be a serious drama (life lived with serious disability and the impact it has on the person), so at the end, I was left feeling confused. It wasn’t hilarious (as the trailer had sold it) but it also wasn’t a serious drama (which it could have been). It ended up being somewhere vaguely in the middle, which left some frustration. 

The other movie that I saw was the brilliant “On the Basis of Sex” about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones who’s actually English but can do one hell of an American accent). I was slightly concerned when I saw the words “based on a true story” right at the beginning of the film since that can mean several things: is it only slightly based on the true story? Which piece(s) are not factual? And why did the producers decide to veer off the true life and when? 

However, despite these concerns, the bio pic ended up being really good (although I’m still not clear which bits were factual or not). Bader Ginsberg is a true American hero for me, and with the recent Cavanaugh hearing (he of the “I like beer” comment), the contrast between her views and that of other justices is huge – almost as though they are from completely different planets. With Bader Ginsberg alive and kicking, I feel safe that she’ll represent the more liberal views of this country, but she’s getting on in years and people don’t live forever…

Back to the movie: it was very well done and although I kept wondering what the true and not-true bits were, the plot line did show how driven Bader Ginsberg had been to be one of the first group of women to attend Harvard Law School, how she balanced home-work life with her husband (who seemed to be very cool to me), and how Bader Ginsberg had used her considerable legal knowledge to help to bring down the very-established gender discrimination which had been in place in the laws of the U.S. for eons.

Her plan seems to have been to show the courts that gender discrimination works in both ways, and so she developed a great argument for an unmarried male caregiver who had been denied tax relief for his caring for his old mum. By using such a non-threatening (to the males) approach of demonstrating the unfairness of such bias in the laws, Bader Ginsberg carefully paved the way for addressing the numerous other ways that the law had discriminated against women. An absolutely brilliant approach for the day and age in which they were living.

The film focuses around her law school years and on this particular case so it’s a fairly narrow time period, but it clearly shows the widespread discrimination that Bader Ginsberg and other women had to deal with. Looking back, I shake my head that it was allowed to continue as long as it did (and still does in some places), and so I am filled with admiration for Bader Ginsberg’s courage and leadership to change things. 

SPOILERS NOW FINISHED.

Anyway, I just loved this film and I’m still curious about what was true and not-true in the movie. Maybe this is the year that I finally read a biography of Bader Ginsberg to find out for myself.  🙂

TV-wise, we’ve been getting into Jason Bateman/Laura Linney’s crime/drama series called “Ozark.” Goodness me – they know how to ratchet up the suspense on these episodes (without Netflix bloat) , and now we’ve reached the end of Season Two, we’re all atwitter for Season Three. (Luckily, the series got renewed so there will be continuation. Phew.) Highly recommend it if you’re looking for a new series to watch – just know that it gets a little tense at times. 🙂