So – here’s some news…

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So, there is some momentous news for me in my world: I have a new job. Yessiree. I’ve left my previous job for some different adventures but still at the same university. I have been invited to join the faculty in the department of Media Communications at the university, and I am completely excited about this. I’m going to start in the fall (i.e. next month), and until then I’m on vacation which means … Guess what?

Loads and loads of free time to do stuff! This is such a great gift for me, as I usually tend to feel as though I don’t really have enough time to do All the Things, and now I have the next three weeks off. And how am I going to fill the time, you ask? Well….

I am reading the textbook(s) to become familiar with the material that class will be covering, and I’m researching some of the Best Practices for teaching in the classroom. I’ll be covering sophomore technical writing classes for media (along with a technical writing class for the English department), and I am so psyched to be back into the classroom after such a long time. I’m also going to be (posh title alert) Editor-in-Chief for the college’s publications, and I am very looking forward to this whole new adventure.

In the meantime, I have a few days in which to mess about doing non-work stuff such as working out, reading, writing, and doing general catching up on life. My reading mojo has returned as well, and so that’s been a lot of fun for me. I have missed the joy of reading over the past few months, and have a small pile of books that I’ve pulled from the TBR shelves from which to choose.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying Our Longest Days, a collection of WWII Mass Observation diaries edited by Sandra Koa Wing (2007), along with a fiction read of Ceremony by Leslie  Marmon Silko, a First Peoples author, and both are good so far.

I’m also preparing to travel to CA to see some family out there, and, as always, am enjoying the excitement of choosing which titles to take with me to read (on Kindle and otherwise). Book nerds unite!

So – life is good right now. I hope that you can say the same of your life. 🙂

(Life is good except for the orange clown and Charlottesville. That’s not good at all. What is wrong with some of these humans? I’m sending gentle thoughts to the many out there. Be kind. Be calm. Be courageous.)

 

 

Monthly Reading Review: July 2017

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So another month has passed, and let’s check in with how my reading is doing… (just out of interest).

The reads for July included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in July: 5

Total number of pages read:  1,563 pages (av. 313).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 4 fiction / 1 non-fiction.

Diversity: 2 POC. 4.5 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books, 2 owned book and 0 e-books (although one is in progress…).

Here are the top three most popular posts from the last month:

Plans for August: There are some big changes coming up for me, so we’ll have to see how that goes. (They are good changes.)

 

At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces – Mary Collins and Donald Collins (2017)

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Saw this title somewhere out on-line, and thought it could be interesting so picked it up. It’s a dual-memoir from a mother and her transgender son (just as in the title) and this narrative (actually a series of essays) shows how they went through the journey of Donald choosing to be a male when he had been born a female. (When your outside gender doesn’t match the gender you feel is true to yourself, it’s called gender dissonance, I learned.) Anyway, with the Orangutan’s recent announcement about the military not allowing transgender people to serve any more (*smh*), this book seemed to be pretty timely.

Donald was born a female, but knew early on in his life that he felt more comfortable and authentic as a male. As he got older, these feelings turned into a serious need, so when he was in high school, he started steps to change into a female. He was honest and open with his mother about this plan, and from Donald’s perspective, he was doing everything he could to keep his mother in the loop.

His mother’s perspective, however, was that he was too young to know what he was doing, he might change in the future, and how could he do this to her so she was “losing her daughter”? This memoir is set up as a written dialogue between mother and son, each giving her or his view on how things progressed. The interesting (and rather appalling) detail is that Donald was perfectly fine aligning his outside gender with his inside gender, but his mother comes across as one of the most selfish people on the planet.

Every single one of the mother’s entries is concerned with how she is “losing a daughter” rather than gaining a son, regardless of how this may impact her child. She refuses to use the preferred pronoun for her son, and fights him every step of the way of his transition. It’s hard to believe that someone could be this callous to someone in their family (“it’s all about me”), especially when it’s something as fraught with challenges as changing your whole gender identity. (And that’s all it is, really. People are just aligning their outsides with their identity. It’s not hurting anyone else.)

During this read, I was getting so annoyed with the mother in this autobiographical recounting of events. Donald was well prepared in how he approached his transition, he looped his mum in the plans before, during and after, and yet her entries only recount her “losing a daughter” and not having control over her child any more (if she ever did).

She bemoans how there weren’t any support groups for her and other parents who, according to her, are “grieving their lost child”. There was no mention at all of how her child was brave enough to be true to himself at an early age – it was completely her needs that should have been addressed. Sod Donald and his needs, to be frank.

I am not a parent, nor am I a parent of a transgender child. I’m not LGBTQIA, but I am a strong LGBTQIA ally, and it really unnerved me just how unsupportive this mother was of her only child and his needs. No wonder she had such a hard time with her son transitioning – she refused to consider his perspective, and was very resistant to using correct terms with his new identity. (Not really “new”. He was being true to himself.)

If this book is fairly representative of how such transitions occur in lots of other families, it’s pretty distressing as the child is already going enough, if you ask me. I would hope that, by now, more families are better educated on the issue, and that the child in question can now receive the vital support that they need at this time.

On the other hand, the trans son, Donald, handled his transition like an adult and like a champ. Perhaps it’s easier if you’re the one who is going on that journey as you have known your thoughts your whole life and probably have been thinking about this for a while, internally, so it’s not a “sudden” event when it’s announced.

Perhaps that what Donald and his mother didn’t have was an honest communication growing up. (How could they when she refused to honor his request for a new name and gender when he was a teenager? That can’t have been a big surprise for her. Who knows, though?…)

This was a provocative read, for the most part, and covered a world with which I was not that familiar. I don’t know anyone close to me who is transgender, but I am certain that if they were, they would have my 100% support in this endeavor. So long as everyone is of age and consenting, then go for it.

Perhaps that is the strength of this book: that it shows how one family traveled along that path and comes out in the end. I must admit that the mother must be braver than I to show herself, warts and all, in this light as she shows how she would not back down on her idea of “losing a daughter”.  For goodness’ sake, give your child the respect, support, and latitude to be who they are so that they can be happy. It’s not all about you all the time.

Kudos to Donald for writing about this experience. Kudos to the mother for being so honest, as well, I suppose, but I’m afraid I’m more in Donald’s corner on this issue.

An interesting read overall.

Jazz – Toni Morrison (1992)

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As the second book of the fiction trilogy that begins with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this seems to be fairly straightforward: husband is long-time married to wife, but then has an affair with 18-year old girl. He gets jealous of her spending time with boys of her own age so he shoots her (his mistress). She dies. Wife goes to funeral of said girl and tries to stab corpse’s face. And then it takes off from there…

Obviously, there is a lot more to the story than that, and it’s a lot more complicated than that simple A-B-C-D progression would seem to suggest. It’s an urban novel set in 1920’s Harlem, right in the Harlem Renaissance period when the African-American art world really exploded, and the plot seems to reflect this as it darts about, like the notes from a trumpet during a jazz concert (ref: title). The non-linear plot lines veers rapidly from thought to thought (although it’s never confirmed whose thoughts they actually are), and the characters and their individual lives overlap all the time so that the narrative is complex and opaque.

As Morrison writes in the forward:

The challenge was to take [the book] beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.

This novel also harkens back to the Great Migration when thousands of African-American families moved from the southern states to the more northerly ones based on the hopes for better jobs, better housing, and a better life.

Indeed, both Violet and Joe have moved to NYC as part of that historic move, and in part to live with others who reflect them and their economic goals:

“Even if the room they rented was smaller than the heifer’s stall and darker than a morning privy, they stayed to look at their number, hear themselves in an audience, feel themselves moving down the street among hundreds of others who moved the way they did, and who, when they spoke, regardless of accent, treated language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play…”

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(Above) – Toni Morrison, author.

The story is told through the various perspectives of different people who have all been impacted by the imploding marriage, and interestingly enough (for me at least), I learned that some critics have likened this multiple-perspective technique to the call-and-response of jazz music (where instruments echo what was previously played by other instruments, but in a different way), and that also that same call-and-response structure echoes African-American history itself (e.g., some of the field work songs used during slavery times were in that sort of set up).

It’s also reflected in how some music is played in a lot of African-American churches where the pastor calls out for a response from the congregation (“Can I get an Amen?”). Wiki also reports that this polyphony (all the multiple lines of music playing at the same time) is also a characteristic of African tribal music, and so there is this long and fascinating line of thought that emerges. (In fact, there are all kinds of rabbit holes that you can disappear down once you start researching it a bit.)

So it’s a complex read, structurally speaking, and yet despite that, it’s not really that challenging to keep everything and everyone straight so long as you’re paying attention. Having said that, it’s not a book that I recommend that you pick up and put down during random moments, but that’s not a criticism of the author or her work. It’s that, just as you don’t often hear linear jazz music and it can be tough to figure out the pattern in the music (if there is one), this is not a plot that can be followed easily without effort. But it’s worth it. The writing is excellent, and the deeper that I dove (dived?) into the book and into the lives of these intermeshed characters, the more I kept thinking about them even when I wasn’t actually reading it.

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Morrison’s characters are stuck with very hard lives in a world that is not caring in the slightest, and yet despite that, they put their all into their very busy working and living lives right where they are, both historically and geographically. The husband and wife in question, Joe and Violet (later nicknamed Violent) Trace lead a quiet domesticated life at the start of this novel.

It’s 1926, WWI has been over for a few years, and the world seems to have taken its breath and caught up with itself with a fairly rosy outlook in general. Joe is working as a traveling salesman selling women’s cosmetics from a suitcase while Violet is an unlicensed beautician working off the books with the more wealthy neighbors; neither of them seem to be particularly remarkable in that their lives are fairly typical without a lot of drama.

However, in the middle of this domestic balance, Joe decides to have an affair with a young woman, Dorcas, a teenager who lives in the neighborhood. However, trouble erupts when he catches Dorcas dancing with male friends at a private party, and he goes off the rails with jealousy and shoots her. Naturally, wife Violet hears about it – she’s friends with the family and it’s a close neighborhood – and when she does, things go way off the rails a bit for her as well.

For various reasons (and it’s different reasons for both of them), the couple keep a photo of the young dead girl on the mantelpiece in their walk-up apartment which doesn’t really help things, as you can probably well imagine. Violet has been hurt and humiliated by the affair, and knows that Joe is mourning his now-dead girlfriend with a strength of emotion that she believes he would not feel for her if she died, and so each character is hurting in his or her own way at his or her own pace. Few of her friends understand this married relationship, and it’s all a bit fraught. Money’s a big worry as well, which doesn’t help things.

So this is a tightly wound read set in Harlem, a place rife with racism and poverty throughout the neighborhood. You’d think that the shooting (which comes early in the novel) would be explosive enough, and yet, for the remainder of the novel, you’re just waiting for something else to happen. There’s a tension there, and Morrison does a great job of winding the springs for you, the reader. When’s the hammer going to drop? And what will it be?

If you’ve ever read any of Morrison’s other works (for example, I’ve read Sula, Beloved, and pre-blog, The Bluest Eye), you’ll know to expect expert original writing that doesn’t necessarily settle into the traditional well-worn grooves of most twentieth century books. This is not anything to hold you back from reading it, and actually, I think that the writing (and the wide-ranging freedom with the characters) is what keeps this book as such a strong reading experience.

I loved this read, and finished it quickly after only a few days. (Always a good sign of a strong read.) Not that easy, but so worth the effort. Highly recommend this.

 

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit (2016)

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The blogosphere has been rather on fire about this short book of essays by the eloquent and passionate Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is an activist for a wide variety of social justice issues, and this quick read is a balm for the soul in terms of how to deal with 45 in the White House.

It’s not a quick fix recipe book, but does have wise words for those who have been impacted by the ascendancy of 45 and his wolf pack, and how to help affect long-term change. If, like me, you’re a tad bit overwhelmed by the sudden 180 degree change in domestic and foreign policies which veer widely every time you wake up (it seems), Solnit has some wise words about looking at change in a long-term view and reminding the reader that all long-time societal impacts are usually composed of loads of small changes happening over a longish amount of time. You might not see the impact but small changes add up.

It’s rather like the analogy of the starfish:

One day on a lonely beach, one person saw that another person was throwing beach-stranded starfishes back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” that person asked.

The starfish rescuer responded, “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea so that they can continue to live.”

The original person said, perplexed, “But there are millions of starfish. How does throwing one starfish back in the sea save the day?”

The starfish thrower responded, “It makes a big difference to that one particular starfish…”

🙂

 

Medical Apartheid – Harriet A. Washington (2007)

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Subtitle: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Well, this read left me a bit shattered, not because it’s so graphic, but because it’s so true and it hasn’t stopped – even in this day and age. This is a well-researched look at the history of medical apartheid, which means, basically, the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the era of slavery to the present day. It’s an incredible read about an important (and much neglected) topic and although it was one of the hardest reads I’ve had in a long time, it’s an important addition to the history of African Americans here in the U.S.

I think that most Americans are aware of the Tuskagee syphilis experiment  from 1932 to 1972 under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a long-term experiment to observe the natural progression of syphilis in untreated subjects, but under the inexcusable idea that the subjects (i.e. the people in the study who had syphilis) believed that they were getting medical care when in fact, quite a few weren’t – and just so medical professionals could see what happened in the lifetime of a poor syphilis patient.

These patients were severely economically disadvantaged (mostly sharecroppers) and poorly educated, and included 600 people who believed that they were receiving free medical care, meals and free burial insurance for participating in this study, a study that even gave 201 participants syphilis (who didn’t have it before), and none of whom were given penicillin (despite all the evidence that this fairly new antibiotic would cure their disease). (Sorry – that’s a rather long sentence, but I trust that you can keep up.)

(It’s insane that this happened, and continued to occur until the 1970’s. My god. I don’t even have words to put here to describe how PO’d I am at this situation. It’s beyond my vocabulary.)

And you know what’s worse? That the medical establishment has continued to abuse this population ever since slavery, and it’s happened over and over again. (And when you read this book, I hope you’ll feel as disgusted as I am.)

One more example that’s more modern: there are several examples of medical studies looking at new technology (e.g. artificial medical devices or treatment approaches) that are totally based on studies filled by African-American participants. And yet when the final device is approved and comes to market, the population who tested it for the manufacturers are actually now least likely to afford access to its benefits. Grrrrrrrr.

Back to the book: Washington has done an excellent job writing this book through the perspective of her journalistic lens, and the book’s divided into three parts: the first is about the history of medical experimentation wrt the African-American population; the second is about more recent cases of medical abuse and research, and the third examines how this history has impacted African Americans and their current views on the (mostly) white medical establishment of today.

I worked for almost a decade in public health at the local City Health Department, and when we would offer medical screenings, some folks would participate but there were times when our services were not as well attended as we had hoped, and frankly, after reading this book and learning this history, I fully comprehend any hesitation to do so. I, too, would be careful with any of my interactions with health care workers as well if I had grown up knowing this history of continued racial and medical discrimination against my friends and family.

And this book carefully covers decades and decades of continued abuse of the African American population. It wasn’t just in the “olden days” – it continued up until close to the end of the 20th century, and actually, probably continues in some places to this day if you consider who continues to populate medical studies offering “free health care if you’ll help us with our studies”.  (It’s usually the highly disenfranchised, socially and economically disadvantaged people with few options for health care. Don’t even get me started on the availability and access to effective dental care….)

The Tuskagee study is usually the most famous study that characterizes this trend, and due to the whistle blower who let the cat out of the bag on that*, there is now an Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and federal laws and regulations requiring Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that are meant to protect human subjects in studies. (The OHRP is under the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services now.)

So – as you can probably surmise, this was a powerful read for me and it just underscores how tough and amazing the African American population are: these guys survived slavery, medical discrimination, civil rights injustices and more. Just imagine how different life for African Americans could have been without this century’s continued discrimination in almost every aspect of life. Goodness me. I’d also be very very careful when dealing with the medical establishment (or the white establishment in general) if I’d grown up learning this history and yet still continuing to thrive despite the odds.

There is nothing that I can say to make this right, so my advice would be to read this, let it in sink in, and then look at your own communities to see how you can impact them in a positive way somehow. I’m not sure that I really like the direction of this country’s administration right now (understatement of the year), but how to change that? (1) Vote. (2) Make your part of the world more just, kind, and fair in any way that you can.

This was an amazing and thought-provoking read. I hope it is for you as well.

* Someone had to whistle-blow on this study??…

The Worst Journey in the World (Volume II) – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

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Exploring is all very well in its way, but it is a thing that can be very easily overdone.

Goodness me. What a ride this autobiographical book was as it follows the (true) travels of a well-meaning (but rather poorly trained) crew of men trying to reach the South Pole of Antarctica. It was heart-breaking to read of their efforts knowing that, in the end, a significant portion of them would die of hideous things such as starvation, frost-bite, and other causes.

apsleyI had read Volume I of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book earlier, and had been mesmerized by its details, so happily picked this volume up to continue the journey. Volume I had clearly shown how challenging the expedition had been for the crew, and Volume II, now including excerpts from the journals of some of the other expedition members, was absolutely harrowing in terms of hardship and misfortune for these well-meaning men.

“We did not suffer from too little brains or daring: we may have suffered from too much.” Excerpt from one of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s more modest entries in his journal.

The expedition had had two goals, neither of which really supported the other, a situation which could be argued to be one of the fundamental reasons why it went so haywire in the end. Let me explain:

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The ship, Terra Nova, in 1911 when it first arrived in Antarctica.

The two competing goals were both very focused on England taking the lead in both the scientific world and the exploring world – to be the first team to officially reach the South Pole (and thus “claim” for the Empire) and to also engage in some serious scientific research thought to help further understanding of the still fairly young idea of evolution. Funding had been short, and so the months before the expedition had been spent traveling around looking for financial donors, all of whom expected to have a stake in the outcome, and with only a small government grant to support them, they were heavily dependent upon the private sector.

The media at the time was very focused on which country would reach the South Pole first, a focus that has been compared to the media frenzy of the Space Race between USA and USSR in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) had tried to reach the South Pole on two earlier attempts without success, and indeed, this particular expedition’s leader, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, had attempted to reach it just a few years before. (Shackleton was a third officer on Scott’s 1901-04 unsuccessful Discovery expedition, and in fact, was interested in making a bid to reach the South Pole around the same time as Scott. He and Scott had a pretty big argument about this and treading on each other’s toes on the southern continent and this led to all kinds of ramifications for both of them, including who had the most honorable intentions. Scott won that battle, but really, I think Shackleton wasn’t a bad guy.)

This was also just before the start of WWI, and so England had not yet been exposed to the huge mass casualties and psychological damage of losing an important war and large swathes of its young men. England was still supreme in the world, the “sun never set on the empire”, and it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that an Englishman could not do if he applied himself.

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Map showing both Scott’s (green) route and Amundsen’s (red) route to South Pole. (Credit: Wikipedia.)

Combine this with the fact that Norway (the upstarts! :-)) were also in the race for the South Pole, and things were a bit fraught all around. When the Scott Expedition left England to sail for the Antarctic (via New Zealand), they left with loads of optimism and with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s team was not going for the South Pole but would be, instead, heading for the North Pole. All seemed to be running smoothly with little competition, until, around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, Scott was informed that Amundsen’s team had done a switcheroo and were instead racing his team to Antarctica. (Not very good sportsmanship, what ho?)

So, two expeditions were hurrying seaward towards Antarctica, both with the weight of their countries hanging heavily around their necks. Scott’s ship almost sunk at one point in a terrible storm losing some of their ponies and dogs overboard (a detail which would become important later on), and it was all rather awful.

Keep in mind that few people had ever been to this continent, and so it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon. No one really knew the terrain that well or its seasonal weather, so there was a lot of guesswork going on with regards to equipment and life experience. The equipment was also technically terrible (although cutting-edge at the time), with plenty of wool, cotton, leather, canvas and fur (for boots, gloves, sleeping bags etc.) None of this helped.

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Siberian ponies on board the Terra Nova prior to arrival.

They finally landed in Antarctica after being stuck in pack ice for a delay of 20 days which affected food supplies, and meant that the expedition would land later in the year than planned which meant less prep time and more bad weather. Unloading the ship meant other calamities, including losing one of their motorized sledges which fell off during the landing process and upon which the expedition had been banking on. The weather was terrible (not surprising when it’s close to the Antarctic winter months) and the expedition were also intent on using ponies as pack animals to haul supplies around. With such obstacles to their planned time line, Scott was advised to kill some of the ponies for food, but Scott refused to do that.

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Captain Scott in his end of the hut in 1911. He thought it would be a good idea to organize the one hut along the same lines as a Naval ship: officers at one end and enlisted at the other. divided by a  blanket. He, of course, got the better end of that deal…

Before they’d even started, three ponies had died from the cold or because they slowed the team down, three more drowned when sea-ice unexpectedly gave way, but Scott was still confident about meeting the end goal. And after reading this whole document, I’m still not sure whether Scott was too over-confident with his expedition goals. Looking back, it seems somewhat foolish to gamble with all these unforeseen misfortunes, but was there really an alternative to moving forward? Perhaps not at this point.

And so the expedition moves forward. It survives appalling weather conditions, frequent blizzards, an ever-lowering stock of pack animals (including dogs). The team receive more ponies half-way through to supplement their stock, but these new ponies have been sent from India and thus are poorly suited to Antarctic conditions. The men work closely together, and there is no mention of any insurrection among the ranks, but boy. I bet there were plenty of grumpy comments inside their heads!

“The day really lives on in my memory because of the trouble of [one of the expedition members]. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his body harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a little dazed.”*

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Emperor Penguins.

So, I mentioned that the expedition had two feuding goals, one to reach the South Pole first and one to do scientific research work. One of the main scientific objectives was to collect some specimens of embryonic eggs from the huge Emperor Penguins who inhabited land down there. (Some penguins weighed up to 6.5 stone/88 lbs and some 45“ in height, and their embryos were believed to be important evidence in proving a point of evolution. As it turns out, theories had evolved by the time the expedition returned to England which was heart-breaking for me as the reader. Some of these men had risked their lives to get samples and to bring them back in one piece, and then when they were turned into the museum, the expedition rep was told that the specimens weren’t wanted. Yikes.)

cherry_garard_sign_revSo, anyway, as you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this read and could chat for quite some time about it, but am pretty sure that perhaps not all of you will share this new obsession. It sent me down Wikipedia rabbit holes for quite some time. There were also overlaps between this expedition and our recent trip to England, as the young author and researcher mentioned earlier (Apsley Cherry-Garrard and only 24 years old) happened to be born in Bedford (my home town), we saw one of Scott’s original journals on display at the British Library, and then at the Royal Mews, there is one of the Queen’s carriages that contains a piece of wood that was the actual hut that Scott and some of his team lived in during this expedition. It also contained some wood from the earlier Shackleton expedition as well. (Amazing how things can overlap sometimes, isn’t it?)

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The Queen’s carriage at the Royal Mews. This vehicle contains a piece of Scott’s main hut during the Antarctica expedition 1910-1913. (It also contained some wood from Shackleton’s polar hut as well.)

Apsley, btw, had no polar experience, was not a scientist, had few relevant skills, but gave quite a bit of financial backing to the expedition (twice!) and thus was selected based wholly upon that. His journal entries about his novice skills can be witty, but are also heart-breaking:

“I confess I had my misgivings. I had never driven one dog, let alone a team of them; I knew nothing of navigation; and [the depot} was a hundred and thirty miles away, out in the middle of the Barrier and away from landmarks. And so we pushed our way out… I felt there was a good deal to be hoped for, rather than to be expected.”

[Very sad face.]

One very very sweet factoid about Apsley: He was rather shy and didn’t get married until he was about 50 or so, and when he first met his soon-to-be much younger wife, the first gesture of courtship he did was to give his wife a small stone. This only makes sense when you know that the first gesture of courtship between an Emperor Penguin and his mate is when he gives her a small stone with which to start building their nest. He called the stones “penguin jewels.” Awww. Sweetness.

I’ve just ordered a biography of Apsley yesterday, so very much looking forward to reading that. He seems to be one of the nicest people on the expedition now that I’ve read his journals.

*Hugely massive understatement!

 

Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier – Dayton Duncan (1993)

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In the past few years, I’ve become really interested in the history of places (both the place that I live and also those of the places that I visit), and I enjoy learning about the different narratives that make up the more complete picture of a place. So, when I came across this title at one of the FoL book sales, I was intrigued.

I’d also been interested in seeing how many of the titles that I’d purchased at last year’s FoL book sale I’d actually read, and realized how very small and paltry that number was. And — I’ve also started my Fall Book Buying Ban which means making a concerted effort to read more titles from my own bookshelves. I did this last year and it was pretty fun so thought I’d start it up again.

Plus I’m heading to England next month and I can always find some interesting titles over there. Need to get some space freed up in the shelves for those treasures who cross the Atlantic on the home trip.

So, all this to say that reading this particular title was good on several different levels!

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This title is one that examines America’s contemporary frontier (as in the “Wild West” frontier). As the publisher writes in the back cover copy: “[T]he sparsely populated American frontier – declared as “closed” by Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago – remains open…” and this book explores the history and current (as in 1993 current) status of “frontier counties” (i.e. counties that have fewer than 2 people per mile population distribution wise). In other states across the U.S. and if you live in a metropolitan area, this stat may sound impossible to have in this day and age, but for a lot of Western counties (a la old cowboy film scenery), it’s very much of a reality.

I live in West Texas (in the Panhandle, really), and the county where I live was one of those frontier counties until a few years ago. You may have heard of the saying, “Big Sky Country”, and that is where I live. The topography is pretty flat, you can see for miles, and the sky is huge and uninterrupted across the horizon. There’s a joke around here that says “the country is so flat, you can see your dog running away for two weeks!”… Arf. Arf.

I love it here, and miss the view when I visit cities (especially NYC which I love but is also claustrophobic for me after a while). I’ve lived here for quite some time, but there are still some days when the region catches me by surprise (e.g. if I see a working cowboy complete with spurs and hat at the grocery store like I did the other day). When that happens, it’s like seeing a living piece of history and I really appreciate the link to the past.

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Driving around the Western states, author Dayton Duncan introduces the reader to some of the people who choose to inhabit these frontier counties. Most of his focus stays on the more typical pioneer states (such as those in Texas, New Mexico and others), but he does include states as far away as Oregon and California since they were the destinations for many of the families who traveled the Overland Trail in their covered wagons and on horseback.

(It’s amazing when you sit down and think about it. The pioneers and their families knew that they would probably never go back from where they came – how brave is that especially when one considers the complete lack of information that they were working under!)

As he drives around to meet the folk who live here and to cover some of their history, Duncan maintains his respect for the townsfolk without having to resort to stereotype and lazy reportage. As the miles go by, he writes about topics as diverse as the extinction of the buffalo herds and the process of choosing where to put a SuperMax prison facility to the known history of the nation’s First Peoples and Billy the Kid (both the legend and the evidence that’s left). Billy the Kid was a real person, but it varies as to how long he lived, where (and how) he died, and what his legacy may mean. (Actually, the place touted as his burying place is on our way west to the mountains near the Texas/New Mexico border.)

This was published by an academic press, so it wasn’t an easy read (in terms of how dense the material was), but it was really interesting to me. There was a lot of overlap between historical events at the time (slavery and pioneer travel for example), and a lot of the history that Duncan relates was new to me and I found it fascinating. (For more about one particular African-American frontier town in Kansas, see here.)

I’m very glad that I pulled this off the shelves to read, and am now digging around my TBR to see what other little treasures that I can dig up….

A Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1946)

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

So, I finally picked up “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy,” Viktor Frankl’s mesmerizing autobiography about his time and thoughts when he was captured as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, one of the most notorious concentration camps in Germany during WWII. I’d been meaning to get to this for a very long time, but I felt that I needed to psych myself up to read it as I know it was not going to be an easy time.

Now that I’ve finished it and can reflect back on the experience, I see that it was a tough read in both the subject matter and also the philosophical discussion that is in the second half of the book, but it was hard mainly because it was true – that people had treated each other in this manner. What. The…. ?

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna during the 1930’s when Hitler came to power and instigated the horrendous concentration camps that tortured and killed millions of Jewish people (and others) at the time.

It’s a time that I find incredibly hard to understand as it’s so completely removed from anything that I would choose to do (I hope), that there seems so little overlap between the life I choose to lead and the lives of the people who ran these camps. It’s easy to judge over time and distance, but I hope to god that I would have tried to stop this whole genocide if I’d had the chance, but who’s to know? The human condition is a strange one at times.

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Back to the book: it’s basically a book in two parts, the first part detailing the three years of his life (and those of others) when Dr. Frankl was picked up and sent to Auschwitz, and then the second half, which is more of a philosophical discussion of how he made sense of the whole ordeal and came up with his school of treatment called logotherapy.

It’s an intense read, and if you’re feeling remotely sorry for yourself when you start to read this, I can almost guarantee that you will have your perspective shifted by the time you finish it. How could one compare the minor trials of life today with the lives of these prisoners who had *nothing*? Literally nothing.

It’s not an easy read, but how could it be when one considers that topic matter? What’s amazing is that anyone survived long enough to walk out of the camps when the final day of freedom arrived. (You’ll need to read Frankl’s description of how some of the prisoners reacted when the gates of the camp were first opened…. It’s incredibly powerful to read.)

So, Frankl discusses his ideas on the meaning of life for himself and others, and concludes that life has meaning to be found in every moment of living and that it never ceases to have meaning, even when one is suffering profoundly.

This is the concept of “tragic optimism” — that no matter how terrible life can be, it only ceases to have meaning when there is no hope for change in the future. Once the hope is gone, then life is over – that love is the ultimate and highest goal that (hu)man can aspire to.

To me, the book seems to be about the importance of deriving meaning from suffering – that one suffers only so that you should learn from it to be a better person and if one loses sight of that goal, then one is doomed. If one feels a sense of control over one’s environment, then you will fare better than those who are physically strong but do not have that sense, and the existential angst that people may feel at some point in their lives is due to the lack of personal agency they may feel in their lives.

I’m not sure. It’s hard to write about this clearly without babbling and sinking into a morass of blather, but it seems to me that perhaps the key to a good life is to serve others. If one looks outside oneself to help someone else, therein lies the meaning of life.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

I urge you to read this for yourself and to draw your own conclusions. My vague personal ones are above, but I think this book is too important for you to try and draw your conclusions from my version of things. It’s a hard book, yes, but it’s an extremely important book and frequently in the top ten lists of influential books for people. It’s an astonishing read. Don’t miss it.

 

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War – Mary Roach (2016)

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If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a serious writing crush on Mary Roach, who, in my opinion, rules the roost on narrative non-fiction. (See reviews of Gulp, Packing for Mars et al.). Naturally, when I saw that her newest book was on the New Releases shelf, I snatched that puppy up.

As always, it was a joy to read. (Honestly, Mary and I would be best friends [in a non-stalker-y way] if we ever moved in next door to each other.)

This volume (as evidenced by the title) covers numerous aspects of the science behind the military’s equipment and people, and, whether you have military experience or not, I think you’d really enjoy this read. (Well, I did.)

[Full Disclosure: I was an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves for 8 years. Very proud of that.] Moving  on…

It’s difficult to do an overall review since I’m just going to fangirl the whole thing, so I thought I’d give you some of the notes that I made as I was having the read:

The U. S. Army’s Natick Labs do loads of important research, but one of their projects has resulted in a sandwich which is supposed to be edible for three years. (I wonder if it has Marmite in it…)

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It’s important to understand how humans endure stress of all kinds, so there has been a lot of study in the field of the human startle response (i.e. when you jump at something unexpected that makes you scared initially). I had thought that this would already have been researched to death by now, but there’s always something new to learn.

In the U.S. Marines for example, the instructors have a reputation for being very tough on the recruits, and the reason is that the young recruits need to reduce their startle fight/flight response so that when something critical is happening in a tough situation, their training will kick in, over-ride the natural responses, and they’ll stay alive. A sort of “emotional inoculation” from stressful situations (e.g. noise, blood/guts, being attacked etc.)

For example, the lab studies how humans get sweaty hands when they are stressed out. At first, you might think: big deal. Sweaty hands. You wipe them on your trousers and move on. But it’s more important than that because if you are a USMC corpsman (medical person) and you have sweaty hands, you’re more likely to drop the stretcher that you’re carrying that could be holding a critically injured person.

So there’s research on how the human body can train its startle response to reduce the sweating reaction. (There’s also research, I imagine, on the different materials that can be used to cover the handles of the stretchers to make them less slippery and so on.)

One of the reasons that uniformity within the unit is enforced (i.e. same haircuts, same clothing etc.) is that it trains people to think as a group instead of as an individual. If you look like everyone else (and vice versa), it’s easier for your first response in a stressful situation to be for the good of the group, not just you.

maryroachWho would know this tidbit: Stink bombs play an important role in warfare. One of the goals during WWII was to design a stink bomb that would stick to one’s clothing and lead to “derision or contempt” from others. If the smell is in your shirt and trousers, it moves with you so you can’t get away from it. If it’s a bad enough smell, others will be able to smell it and as it’s in your clothing, they’ll associate with you. There’s no getting away from it, and so an effective stink bomb can break up critical meetings, important conversations, or empty rooms. The goal at the time was to make a stink bomb that smells like human poo, one of the most repellant smells to humans (according to Roach). If you make the smell also foul and unidentifiable, people will be more likely to scatter as their first reaction is, typically and from an evolution perspective, not knowing if the smell is dangerous or not. (It also smells really bad so that’s another reason!)

Researchers are also studying the smell of stress. If there are sensors that could be embedded into the actual fabric of uniforms, then the “smart uniforms” could detect when the soldier/sailor was stressed and help people manage their stress levels in dangerous situations.

And then, curiously enough, Roach forays into the world of stomach problems (notably diarrhea) as they are the most common medical issue that arises when soldiers are stationed overseas.

Diarrhea not only increases the risk of dehydration (especially important in dry arid places), but also means that the sick soldier in question is thinking more about the possibility of pooing in his/her pants than aiming the trigger or looking for bad guys. (It’s hard to concentrate when you’re sick like that so it’s important that this issue is addressed for both the soldier and to succeed in a military situation. This is something that had not occurred to me before. Thank you, Mary.)

As you can probably surmise, this was an excellent read covering everything from how uniforms have evolved to how war can affect your hearing, make your hands slippery (difficult for the fine motor tasks such as steady hand on trigger situations), getting a genital implant from surviving an IED explosion (impact comes foot-first for the most part as soldiers are probably driving over the placement of the IED…) to the best way to fight off sharks if you get tossed overboard.

Oh, and I can’t forget the fascinating chapter on submarine life.

I loved it.

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