New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

China Court – Rumer Godden (1961)

Another title pulled from the old TBR shelves (go me), I had little idea of what this was going to be about, apart from the fact it concerned a family who went back a few generations in the same old house somewhere. I vaguely knew Godden had grown up spending some time in India during the time of Raj, so I had an idea that they weren’t of a poverty-level background, and since I was in the mood for some family-saga reading…

So – what about “China Court”?

This was a fairly ok read. Nothing too spectacular, but if I’m honest, I spent a good two-thirds of the book being completely lost as to who was who in the story. There’s a family tree at the start of the book (which would probably have been helpful if I’d noticed it before the end of the book!), but since I didn’t know it was there – holy crud. I was lost. And then I just got lost-er. (New word for you.) 

I came this-close to giving it up as a DNF, but then, 75 percent of the way through it, it suddenly became really interesting (one of the characters had been secretly collecting books!) so I kept going until the end by which time I sort of knew who these family members were (and had them straight in which generation they were in). 

When I turned that last page, I finally was sorted out a bit more and actually, I went straight back to the beginning of the book and started to reread it (except this time knowing who each person was). This clarity meant it would have been a completely different read If I’d had the will to keep going through a second time, but it was not to be. 

So, a rather strange and never-ending read and although it may not have been the best read in the world this summer, I’m glad I read it. Actually, I’m even more glad that it’s off the TBR shelf as it opens up at least an inch of free space, width-wise.  🙂

So, you win some, you lose some. I’m quite content to cross Godden off the list now for future reads. One good thing: this rather dissatisfactory read did make the next book (title up in the next blog post) seem fantastic, so all was not lost. Sometimes you need to have a bad read to kickstart your appreciation of a good one. :-}

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women on whom Robinson makes mention includes a large number of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs.. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her, so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

Catching up: Midsummer edition

Well, well, well. Summer school has started and is now halfway over, so that’s why there’s been a drop in posts the last fortnight or so. It’s very fun to teach but I must admit that it definitely eats into my day, what with grading, prepping PPTs, and general admin, so reading seems to have fallen off the last few days. It’ll pick up in two weeks (when summer school’s over). Phew. 

Thought that this would be a good time to catch up with some of the more notable summer reading titles that I haven’t yet blogged about, so here you go. These haven’t been the only books I’ve read, but they are the books that have left an impression on me over the last few weeks or so. 

I am becoming pretty interested in autobios and biographies, so as I was strolling through the library shelves, I was drawn to a short biography of children’s author, Richard Scarry. My twin was very interested in Scarry’s books when we were growing up and so I picked this version up. It wasn’t a heavy-duty serious solid biography, but more of a conversation or dialogue with some of the people who knew him so it ended up a pretty lightweight read which was fine, since I was a bit brain-dead at the end of the semester when I read it. 

Then, I wanted to read from my TBR pile, so pulled a fairly recent buy for me called The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor, mainly because of two things: it was about a (fictional) music group from the eighties and the book was partly set in Luton, which is a fairly nondescript quite industrial town near to where I grew up. It’s not a town that leaps to mind for many authors and so when I saw that O’Connor had chosen it, it immediately went on to the list. 

It was a fun read that I gobbled down in just a few days and covers the life and evolution of a small group of friends who make up a band in their teenaged years and what happens to it (the band) and them as it evolves over time. Sad, funny – lots of great pop culture refs for those of us who came of age in that decade PLUS it kept mentioning landmarks that I had heard of. Well written story which kept me turning the pages. I’m on the lookout for more O’Connor (who’s actually a big Irish author so not sure why the attraction to Luton!) 

That was followed with a rather ponderous effort at reading Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers on my kindle. I’m about halfway through it right now, but it’s been put down for a week or two so I’m hoping that I haven’t lost the impetus to finish that title before I forget all the characters and what they’re doing!

Since it was summer and my brain was on holiday for a bit, I wanted a quick read that was also well written, so picked up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground which was an enjoyable romp and also gave me lots of examples of good grammar examples to show in class. (I know. Strange but true.) Features more of Tom Ripley’s adventures and was just a good read overall.

Then I soldiered through a nonfiction by Jonathon Raban called Hunting for Mister Heartbreak. I’d really appreciated one of Raban’s other reads (called Badlands [no blog post] about North Dakota, I think), so was rather hoping to replicate that level of read. I’d also enjoyed a book by Raban called Coasting (when he sails in a small boat around the coast of UK)…

Hunting for Mister Heartbreak was set to be a good read, going by the narrative arc: English man travels around America trying to find the essence of American-ness is various places, from the Florida Keys to the Deep South and in between. 

This book didn’t reach the same level of greatness that Badlands and Coasting did, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe this was an earlier volume and he hadn’t got his swing yet? There was quite a lot of him philosophizing about things in a rather superior way, and I think I just got tired of him judging the places and people who surrounded him. It just didn’t really come together and seemed more of a patchwork quilt just thrown together to create a bigger work. So-so, if you ask me, but another off the TBR pile, so that’s good. (I might be done with Raban now though.) 

Then summer school prep and the semester actually beginning which has meant more time prepping for class and grading work. I have a really good bunch of students this semester – summer school students seem to be a different breed than the long-semester ones and I’m enjoying the experience – but it’s definitely crazy-fast-paced for us to fit all the material in. Then, when summer school finishes in a couple of weeks, I get another couple of weeks off to recover and plan for the fall semester and then the school year begins again. I just adore teaching! (I hope the students enjoy it as well. :-}

New (to me) books…

There happened to be a FoL library book sale at the start of last month, and who am I to turn down that deliciousness? So, of course, I went. “Just to see…” 🙂

So, here are the titles that I carried home with me (from top to bottom):

  • Germinal – Emile Zola
  • The House of the Four Winds – John Buchan
  • Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge – Lindy Woodhead
  • Fodor’s Vancouver and Victoria guide book
  • The Trumpet of the Swan – E.B. White
  • Stuart Little – E.B. White
  • The Great Typo Hunt – Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson
  • Death in the Summer – William Trevor

Nearly all fiction titles (which is not my usual MO), but this was probably influenced by my glancing at my already-existing TBR NF shelves and realizing that I already have enough on those!

(Plus this pile did give me the impetus to go through my TBR and whittle down its numbers quite a bit. (Two large grocery bags of books to the FoL!)

Plus, I finally bit the bullet and gave away my large pile of dark-green Virago titles.

I know – sacrilege, but I realized that if I haven’t read these titles over the past 20 years, I probably don’t really want to read them at all. Now they are available to more appreciative readers!)

Now, I just have to read them! Hahahahahahaha.

Indulging in some E.B. White…

Going to a couple of thrift shops, I had found a boxed set of E.B. White’s trilogy including Charlotte’s Web* (1952), Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). I’d already read Charlotte’s story, but the other two were new to me… It was a hot day, I was tired from all the de-stoning of the flower beds (see previous entry), so I sat down to engage in some sweet reading.

Both were adorable reads (just as Charlotte’s Web was), and if you haven’t read them, I recommend them for an adorable hour or so of beautiful writing and lovely stories. (Plus – some more of artist Garth Williams’ perfect pics.)

Stuart Little is a smart little mouse who was born (in mouse form) to human parents, but who lives his life as a human would (just a very small human). Anyways, it’s so sweet (although not saccharine) to follow Stuart’s adventures and I loved this little jaunt with this rodent.

Then, I moved on to a read of The Trumpet of the Swan which follows the adventures of a young trumpeter swan who has no voice (and thus, can’t trumpet). Undeterred, he enrolls in school, and then falls in love with another swan. However, with no voice, how can he tell her of his deep love for her? Just adorbs.

(I’m very puzzled about how I missed these when I was a young reader who adored animals… Maybe it was an American book? Or I was too deeply attached to Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain?)

(I was obsessed with this book when I was little…)

(Interestingly, Garth Williams (the artist who had illustrated Charlotte’s Web only illustrated Stuart Little. Another artist ended up illustrating The Trumpet…, so I missed Williams’ style. Still lovely stories though.)

After reading some more of White’s work, I was curious about his life so toddled off to the library to see if I could track down a biography about him. I found one by Michael Sims: The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (2011). Cool. I was psyched to learn more about the lovely Mr. White…

However, it was not to be. The author had completely butchered this biography, and to be honest, I’m not sure how this version made it through an editor. Not to be mean, but from a professional editor’s viewpoint, it was so sophomoric and read like a student’s early draft of a basic research essay. (Sorry. But it’s true.)

The author had included every single little fact that he had dug up about White, and then had just mushed it all together in a vague order, but goodness gracious. It was painful to read, and I didn’t want to sully White’s image in my head with this writing, so stopped after a hundred pages of so. Grr.

There are, however, other biographies of White out there to read, so I’ll try one of those. This title is off the list though. 🙂

Then to recover from that disappointment, I did a jigsaw puzzle… 🙂

  • If you google Charlotte’s Web, curiously enough, the first item that pops up on the search list is of the weed type that’s called that same name. Aaah. A sign of the times. 🙂

Summer Catch-Up: Flower beds and books (of course!)

So I’m at the beginning of summer break (woohoo) which is a great gift for faculty. All the graduates have gone off to explore their worlds and I have a space until the beginning of July to hang out and do stuff (or not, as the case may be). I wish I could share this with you all though.

So, what exactly have I been doing? Well. Let’s see…

I have redone the two flower beds in front of the house. This included removing every single river stone from each bed, planting some annuals in front and filling some gaps in the boxhedge, and then I’m now putting each of those river stones back in place. (Phew. A huge job for me, but it will look good when it’s done. See photos below for updates on progress.)

Flower bed #1 (after all stones pulled out). Ready for planting annuals and putting stones back.
Flower bed #2: halfway through the process (now completed).

I’ve also been reading, naturally, so seeing as it’s summer (and the living is easy :-)), I thought I’d just do some reviewlettes to keep caught up with the titles.

I had a fun read of R.C. Sheriff’s Greengates (1936), a domestic mid-century novel about an English couple who have to (re-) find themselves after the husband retires. Nothing too deep and meaningful, but just a good solid read. Just right after the end of the semester…  

I had a lovely peruse through a coffee table book on modern interior design and yearned for some of these rooms. (Unfortunately, I don’t happen to have one zillion dollars at the moment, but when I do… Yes.)

Called Interiors: Inside the American Home and edited by Marc Kristal (I think), these were not your average American home. No sirree bob. It was more along the level of perhaps the Kardashians, but it was still enjoyable to look at how the designs were for the rooms, and learn more about my own style. I can still pull the pieces of design that I really like and integrate it into my own home, yes?  

In the mood for short stories, preferably speculative fiction and by a POC, I went looking for some more Nalo Hopkinson and came from with the library edition of Mojo: Conjure Stories, an anthology edited by Hopkinson. This is a collection of short stories written by a variety of authors across the globe, but all POC and written through the lens of Caribbean and AfAm magic. (Magic is a little bit of a stretch for me to read, but the majority of these stories were fine… Only a few didn’t make the cut, in my opinion, but that’s to be expected with an anthology.)

Overall, this was a fun read so I’m open to reading more along those lines in the future.

And now I’m choosing my next read. Which one, which one… ? (Plus – finishing the flower beds!)

Oh, and plus this: I’m off to Canada in a couple of weeks for a conference, so been reading about Vancouver (where I’ll be)… Cool beans.

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women – Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English (1978/2005)

Continuing with my ongoing goal of reading from my own TBR (ha!), I pulled down this title. I’ve read Ehrenreich NF before (such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America [pre-blog]) so I knew to expect a well-written and pretty thoroughly researched non-fiction read from her (and the co-author), but what I was really impressed about was the breadth (and depth) of this look of women’s health (and the accompanying [mostly male] advisers. 

So – what is this book about? It’s an almost academic survey of how the health of women (and thus women themselves) have been on the receiving end of very questionable “scientific” advice over the years, and since it was a large overview of a long period of time, it was interesting to see the general patterns of the authoritarian (mostly male) through the years. 

For example, it’s pretty well known that the Victorian woman was treated as though she was an infantile imbecile by the males (and some females) in her life, but it was amusing to see how the advice from the “scientific experts” evolved from this to the Edwardian woman (who was told that her whole life was to produce children but then hand them over to a nanny or similar) to the next generation of women who were advised to treat their children via the whole “children should be seen but not heard” paradigm, to another stage when the foci of the family was to please the child first and foremost… and so it continues.

I am hoping that the most recent trend of viewing children as “equal” in power to (or sometimes with more power than) the parents will end soon, as I am seeing the result of that in some of the college students in my classroom at times. 

(The Helicopter parent has now been replaced by the Lawnmower parent, it seems. Lawnmower parents do more than the hovering of the Helicopter parent: the Lawnmower group actually leap into their adult child’s life and mow down any obstacles for their kid. Thus, the analogy of the Lawnmower… Of course, I’m not asserting that every parent does this, but it is common enough to be a “thing” in higher ed.) 

The “expert advice” for women has also evolved in tandem with the evolution and maturation of science as a discipline, since according to Ehrenreich, almost every piece of advice has been painted with the color (and authority) of science, whether it was crud or not. People followed what these “experts” recommended, regardless of how wacky the advice was. (This also follows with the notion that women were also infantile and did not have the wherewithal to make their own health decisions.) 

(Thinking about it, it’s a horrifyingly interesting exercise to see how this is playing out right now in some of the states and their recent (anti-)abortion laws. Women are still being told how to control their bodies by large legislative bodies of ill-informed men. Plus ca change…)

So, anyway, I really enjoyed this provocative (in terms of “thought-creating”) read, and if you’re interested in medicine, in women’s issues, in medical history… you’d enjoy this title. 

(Note though that this book was originally written in 1978, but the text has been updated in pieces. The updating is a little patchy in places, but overall, it’s a really interesting read as both a piece of history and an overview of social issues.) 

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. 🙂

A Silver-Plated Spoon – John, Duke of Bedford (1959)

I seem to be rather enamored with biographies and autobiographies at the moment, and so, as part of my goal of reading more from my own TBR, I pulled this title down from the shelf. I had found this volume at one of the FoL book sales, and bought it as I was intrigued by (a) the fact that I remember being taken for several visits to this guy’s family (and stately) home as a child, and (b) I was also curious about the reason why it had shown up in West Texas, 5,500 miles away from the place it described. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, and it turned out in the end, I was actually pretty impressed with how proficiently it was written and the author’s witty sense of humor. (Very dry.) 

I grew up in Bedford, a middle-sized market English town that has a history of hundreds of years. Despite many years being educated there, I was still pretty ignorant about some of its local historical figures (this family being one). However, I’d wondered about this family title (Duke of Bedford), and since they also lived in the same county (I think), what their connection was to the town of Bedford. This read clarified all that for me.

John, the Duke of Bedford author, writes a fairly straightforward recounting of his family’s long history. His family records can take his descendants back for hundreds of years with a fairly constant peripheral relationship with the royalty of the time. (A few queens and kings even stayed the night in their ancestral home, Woburn Abbey, which fascinated me. How on earth would you prepare your house for an overnight stay of the Queen?) 

So, there’s a lot of family and local history retold in this book – interesting for me, but perhaps not so interesting for others with no connection to the area. I was impressed with the fact that the Russell family (who make up the Duke connection) had kept accurate records of their ancestors for so many years and, having watched my father labor for years over our own (slightly more modest) family tree, was well aware of how much work tracing such a personal history can be for someone dedicated to the cause. 

John’s (the Duke in question) childhood had been isolated and he had had a lonely upbringing with a very distant father (personally speaking). However, John doesn’t seem to hold a huge grudge towards his parent (although he certainly doesn’t give him much slack), and so the majority of the book puts a lot of focus on how much he (and his wife) have worked on turning his stately home into a profitable concern instead of the partly ruinous mound of bricks that his earlier relatives had left to molder. I really appreciated how this Duke had seen the value in renovating the large house whilst also keeping it historically accurate. (It was very sweet actually.) 

So, this was an interesting interlude going back in time for an important local family from the area where I grew up. (Curiously, their family’s link to Bedford is not with my nearby market town of the same name. It’s to do with some real estate in Bedford Square in the City of London.) 

This was actually a far better read than I had anticipated, and I’m glad that the title had somehow made it onto the TBR (and now it’s off!). 

The question now remains: what title to read next? 

Woburn Abbey.