February 2018 Reading Review


It’s just finishing up the second month of the year and the Spring semester, and everything is going quite swimmingly. 🙂 I’m not teaching that extra class this semester, and it has made a world of difference in terms of work load, stress, etc., so I’m happy that I made the executive decision to not take that on again.

It’s the start of Spring here in West Texas which can mean temperatures from the low 20s to the high 80s, so it’s dressing in layers here for most of the time. Keeps things interesting, let me tell you!

To the books read during February:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in February: 8

Total number of pages read: 1,823 pages (av. 228).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 3 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 0 play. 1 DNF.

Diversity: 6 POC. (Hat tip to Black History Month.) books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library book, owned book and 1 e-book.

Guilty admission: I ended up DNF-ing Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger. (I just couldn’t click with it, but I did read 150 pages, so not a total loss.)

Plans for March: Read lots. Read widely. 🙂



Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (2000)

Kidder_tracySubtitle: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.

So, this title was quite an astonishing read for me, in that the guy who is the focus of this story went through such an amazing and never-ending amount of crud and STILL didn’t get a bad attitude towards the other humans.

Here’s a summary of the story if you are not familiar with it already: Deo (full name: Deogratias) was a young man in Burundi who survived a civil war and the related genocide only to end up at JFK in New York carrying two suitcases and $200 in his pocket. He knew no one, had no contacts, no place to stay, no nothing, and yet somehow, through a combination of factors, he ends up in one piece and a medical school graduate.

I know, right? Rather puts your own life into perspective…

Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, found out about Deo’s story after he (Kidder) had penned his earlier NF, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who formed a non-profit to tackle public health nightmare situations in Haiti (and beyond). Kidder tracked down Deo’s awe-inspiring story whilst he was tracing Farmer’s since both Farmer and Deo ended up working together on some health projects.

deoDeo, born to a small farmer and his wife, grew up in the forests and mountains of Burundi, living a fairly typical agricultural childhood for his country until the civil war and unrest arrived. Having to run for his life when the murderous rebels surround his region, Dec finds himself alone and with no money or help as he crosses the Burundian landscape trying his hardest to avoid being killed in the genocide that was taking his country by storm. (The descriptions of what he sees and what he goes through have to be read to be believed. Warning: they are harrowing.)

After surviving months on the run, hiding in forests and just a few steps ahead of the rebel groups, Deo’s good fortune puts him on one of the few remaining aeroplane rides out of the unstable country, and Deo arrives in New York with not much, really, apart from his attitude and his ability to make friends along the way.

The young immigrant scrapes a living delivering groceries 12 hours a day, and living in Central Park or co-squatting in unlivable vacant buildings, but as you can read, by an amazing series of coincidences and people who know people, Deo ends up at Columbia University, followed by medical school. The “how” of all this is proof that good people live out in the world, even if they’re not obvious to you.

So, this was a true rags-to-riches story for this young African person, and as you can probably surmise, it’s a great story with an almost fairy-tale ending, so you’d think that Kidder, an award-winning author, would be the perfect match to tell this narrative.

And you know, he was until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly, for no reason really, Kidder starts injecting himself into the story taking it on a very philosophical track of meaning and forgiveness. All very valid, but TBH, Kidder really got in the way of Deo’s story, and I’m wondering if perhaps Kidder was trying to meet a publisher’s page number goal of some kind, because if he had stopped at an earlier finishing point, this book would have been outstanding.

It was almost as though this was two different books all smashed into one: one a fairly straightforward chronological narrative and the other more of an esoteric take on the morality side of things. I’m not sure why Kidder did this — I can only speculate — but it did not do the book justice, as by the time I’d reached the end and turned the last page, I was very ready to finish up the read.

And that’s a shame as the book should have ended up with much more powerful punch than it did. Instead of thinking “Wow. This is an amazing young man with an incredible story filled with hope and compassion,” I ended up going “finish up already, Kidder.”

So, I’d recommend that you read this story for the Deo true narrative, and when Kidder inserts himself in this unwarranted Yoda fashion, just stop your story there.

Deo’s story is breathtaking, but unfortunately, I ended up being annoyed with Kidder more than continue to be amazed at Deo. As any narrative NF writer should know, you don’t want to be part of the story unless you can’t help it. I think Kidder could have, but didn’t.


Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)


“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.


(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.


The Negro Motorist Green-Book – Victor Hugo Green

The_Negro_Motorist_Green_BookSo, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.

Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.

Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.

AfAm_car_ownersOriginally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.

The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦

This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?

  • ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)


Time to Play with the TBR…


Strolling around the blogosphere seeing what’s going on, I read Thomas’ great blog at Hogglestock, and saw that he had a complete re-org of his library shelves (and he really does have a dedicated library room. #SeriousReader.)

Seeing the photos of him messing around with his book collection made me want to at least catalogue what titles are in my own TBR pile, thinking that if I had a better idea of what books I actually owned, it would actually lead to an increased likelihood of me reading them (in theory).

Plus – like a lot of book-y people, I love lists.

So, I opened up an Excel sheet and got to work. With the leg in plaster, I couldn’t pull all the books off the shelf (a la Thomas), so I ended taking photos with my camera of each shelf, and then moved to another room to type up the info, using the photos as reference for adding to the Excel sheet. It worked out really well, and although it’s not the same as physically taking books off the shelf and physically handling them, it came close enough for me.

(I’m still going to remove all the books from my bookshelves at some point, but that can happen only when this cast is removed. Not too long now… One more month to go.)

Reading about other people’s TBR piles, I became very curious about what exactly my own stash was holding, and I dug in. The end results were pretty interesting (to me, at least), and the numbers weren’t as bad as I had thought. (Everything is relative though.)

My total of TBR (both fiction and NF) is 399. (Let’s say 400 in case I missed a title here or there.)

This is divided up into two main categories:


I am quite surprised about the number of fiction books that I have. I would have sworn that I had less than that, but you can’t fight numbers, can you?

With the NF, I seem to have a penchant for buying books concerned with history (mostly Victorian), but some other historical pieces slip through the net at times (e.g. social history, early American life etc.), social justice [esp. in the last year or so], travel, well-written biographies and autobiographies, and then the always-popular books-about-books.

That said, there are some rather random (but still interesting) one-off topics in there:

  • The true story of a guy who follows the journey of a swallow from northern Europe to Africa…
  • The true story of someone who retraces the journey of a person back in history who tried to track down the mythical city of Atlantis and never returned…
  • A historical look at the attitude towards sex in America and how it changes (or doesn’t, as the case may be)…
  • The suffragettes, the history of Roe v. Wade and abortion in America and other related issues…
  • A journalistic view of sorority life for students at university…
  • An AIDS memoir…

And the list just continues. I’m very glad that I took the time to do this project as it’s opened my eyes to the books I already own, all of which I’d like to read. (Except one or two odd titles that are going to the FoL Library Sale forthwith. I have no idea how they slipped through the defensive team, but there you go… Can’t win them all.)


Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

(Re-)Learning, Learning, Learning….


So with this leg of mine in a plaster cast, I’ve been having a huge weeks-long lesson in patience, a skill that, frankly, wasn’t very honed before now. However, being cast-bound has definitely not been as bad as I had thought it was going to be, mainly because the Superhero has really come through and been fantastic in putting up with supporting me. He really has been great in helping me get around, and I honestly do not know how people who don’t have a Superhero handle this situation without one. I’m very grateful.

Reading – I’m ploughing my way through Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of QE2, which has been enlightening. I do wonder if it’s a little sycophantic in places, and I am not sure how reliable some of the material is in ref to her sources, but hey now. It’s a good read all the same, and surprisingly difficult to put down at times.

With this free time before the semester starts, I’ve been going to the office in the afternoons to keep an eye on work email and projects, and also renewing/updating my writing skills. (You can never do too much learning, I think.)

I’ve been reading my writing bible, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, an older book but with some absolute writing rules that I use in my professional life. Incidentally, the White in the author list is actually my loveliest essay guy, E. B. White, whose work I adore most of the time. (See reviews for both Charlotte’s Web and a book of White’s essays here.)

This also reminds me that I have a NF in the TBR pile on how the Elements of Style actually came to be written… Might have to move that up the pile in a moment or two once I’ve remembered the title. (Here it is: Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style by Mark Garvey.) Be still my heart.

Along with the Strunk and White, I’ve also been reading a reference book from the Associated Press, Guide to News Writing (Rene J. Cappon). Written in 1999 (wot? no updates?), this is a nuts-and-bolts guide on how to approach writing from a journalism angle. I’ve written for most of my career, but mostly from a PR angle. JOUR writing is very different, so I’ve been swotting up on that a bit since I also do a bit of that type of writing now and then. (I also need to edit this style of writing a lot, so I have to know of what I speak, yes?)

This reference guide is pretty good, but the pages are printed on crappy quality paper and the actual type is tiny. (I mean, 8 or 9 point tiny.) WWWHHHYYY?

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)


I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):

Incoming Books….


So, Christmas has come and gone. New Year’s has come and gone. Time off almost come and gone. What has been quite steady is the reading habit and, along with that, the buying-of-books habit (although curtailed a bit last year).

Here are some of the new titles which have slipped by the goalie in the last month or so. Top to bottom are as follows:

  • We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang (NF)
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF)
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic – Sam Quinones (NF)
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – David Allen (NF)
  • Fashion: The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute (NF)

The majority of these were bought on our recent trip to Santa Fe because (a) they are interesting titles, and (b) I wanted to support the indie bookshop there. (Check out Collected Works in Santa Fe if you’re there. Great place.)

And so: what am I reading? None of these titles. :-}

A biography of Queen Elizabeth II (a curiosity piqued by watching Season Two of The Crown, naturellement.)