Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John ) and Lucy ), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.
WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.
I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the
world. It did all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like
me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a
POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the
book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending
sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of
text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that
the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you
have one rather confused reader.
(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )
The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.)
And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)
I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a
solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was
no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page).
Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along
with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still,
quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own
personal experiences though.)
Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂
So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.
If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).
This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)
When school finished up in mid-December, there was the usual crush of reviewing final exams and getting the grades in on time and so it was a few days before I could really sit down and chill out. Since I’m now faculty, I earn the same university breaks as the students which ended up about three weeks, give or take a day. (I still find it amazing that I’m now on the faculty side of the university after twenty years as a staff member. That staff work experience definitely enables me to be a stronger faculty member, I must say.)
So, to the reading:
I really enjoyed a solid read of The Butchering Art by social historian Lindsay Fitzharris. About Joseph Lister and his quest to revolutionize Victorian medical care via anesthesia and better hygiene, this was an NF which ticked almost all of my reading boxes: well written, well researched, Victorian times, medical history, social history, dry sense of humor – and I really enjoyed this read. (See here for a more in-depth review.)
Then, I embarked on the journey of Alex Haley’s Roots, the fiction-y saga of Haley’s family who were shipped to the U.S. as part of the Slave Triangle trade route and have stayed in the States since then. True or not, this was a really interesting narrative. Does anyone remember watching the old TV series of Roots when it came on? I’ve always meant to read the book, and finally got around to it. I think that there is some debate about what exactly is true and what is not, but just speaking about the plot – it’s a good read and really demonstrates how strong Haley’s family (and others in the same situation) must have been to make it through all these years.
(Roots was also a Big Scary Book in terms of page numbers, so go me. It’s the little things, right?)
I read some more of Ray Bradbury’s sci fi, this title being The Martian Chronicles (see review here), and it happened to be one of those library books which have the well-turned yellowing pages with a perfect type font and size as well which made it a really enjoyable read. (I can’t help it. A reading experience involves much more than just the words for me!)
Traveled to a plot set in India with Lavanya Sankaran’s 2013 novel, The Hope Factory (another really good read with interesting characters and a fast-moving plot but no blog post), and then followed that up with a library checkout of the latest book Homebody by Joanna Gaines, an HGTV interior designer who (along with her husband Chip) has a series of TV shows about doing up old houses. This led me to redoing some of the decorations around the house and getting inspired that way – plus it had lots of pictures to look at!
Then a solid read of the 2018 America’s Best Travel Writing volume which was pretty bad until about halfway through when suddenly the read clicked for me. It was edited by Cheryl Strayed, and since I’m not the biggest fan of her work, I think this was the reason that I didn’t get on with the initial selections in the book. We did become more friendly in the end, but if I had stuck with Nancy Pearl’s rule of 50 pages, it would have been a DNF for sure. That’s the gamble with a curated collection of stories in these volumes… Still, as mentioned, I did come across some good selections which saved the read for me.
The new year brought more determination to read from my own TBR pile, so I pulled a random title with an old Virago volume, The Orchid House by Phyllis Strand Allfrey (1954). No real blog post, but this was an ok read (albeit slightly strange). This novel is widely considered to be one of the stalwarts of Caribbean literature despite the fact that Allfrey was of Caucasian descent and of a family that benefited significantly from the slave trade.
However, this seems to be generally forgiven since this narrative, her first (and only) published novel, was from the perspective of an old island nanny of the family. It’s a pretty dark and rather strange book though. However, this was more of a broccoli book for me in the end. Nothing too outstanding though, and I’m glad to have finally read it after it being on the TBR shelves for longer than I will admit. 🙂
I’m in the middle of reading some Wodehouse for light relief, and just about to pick up another one from the TBR, this one called The Rotter’s Club, a 2001 novel by Jonathon Coe. Very different from the Caribbean novel as this one is set in the much colder and grittier parts of Birmingham in England in the 1970s, and is from the perspective of a young lad. It’s been really funny in places so far – enough that I burst out laughing at the gym this morning – so I’m looking forward to the read.
So that’s me all caught up for now. How have your reads been lately?
So, in the manner of a lot of book bloggers, I have compiled a list of my “Best of…” titles that I’ve read last year for both fiction and for non-fiction. In the same vein, titles on these lists are not necessarily published in 2018 – this is just when they made their wending way into my grubby little mitts and off the TBR pile (for some of them)…
Similar to others in the book blogosphere, I rather enjoy being quite nerdy and reviewing how my reading patterns went over the past year, although I had thought I had read more than this. However, no worries. It’s not a race so all is fine. Just interesting.
So, to the numbers:
TOTAL books read in 2018 – 78. (Average: 6.5 books/mo.) Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in March (which coincided with Spring Break travel and prep for said trip.)
This was composed of almost 50/50 with regard to F and NF. (Actual numbers were 40 F and 38 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio.)
Authors: Another category that’s almost 50/50: 41 M and 37 F
Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC: 30 (38%, just over one in every three).
Where were these books from?
I’m pleased with this one: 50 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)
I read an average of one e-book (Kindle) for each month. Library was the other source.
Year range of publication date: 1899 (The Vampyre/Polidori) to 2018 (various). 1993 average.
Shortest book length: 32 pp (The Vampyre/Polidori). Longest: 912 pp (Roots/Hailey). 295 pp. average.
Overall, this was a fun year. Additionally, I had two solid reads of the AP Style Book (for professional development), so it was a good mix of work/play. I had an enjoyable year.
Goals for 2019? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun. 🙂
“The ascendancy of knowledge over ignorance, and diligence over negligence, defined the profession’s future…”
If you are interested in Victorian times, in medical history, in social history, in well-told narratives… have I got the book for you. The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris ticks all the boxes for me with regard to having a great read: dry sense of humor, loads of facts, about a time period that I’m very interested in, and medicine? Yes please.
I think that it’s quite amazing how fast (and how far) medicine (especially surgery) has come from its roots in Victorian science. In close to 150 years, we’ve completely reshaped the goals and methods of surgery, along with significantly reducing the death rates associated with that. When you keep in mind just how grubby surgery was, it’s an astonishing leap forward.
So, always curious about the history of medicine, I was trawling my TBR shelves (go me!) and stumbled upon this title. Shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize along with other notable accolades, it was a brilliant read and one of those “read at the right time” situations for me. I loved it.
So, what’s the book about? It’s revolves around Joseph Lister (1827-1912), a surgeon who introduced new principles of cleanliness (along with the germ theory) which went on to transform surgical practice and reduce post-operative mortality (or “ward fever”) deaths by huge numbers. Or, as the book says, the shift in medical procedure from antisepsis (germ killing) to asepsis (germ-free practices). It’s quite the story.
Fitzharris reports that during this period of time, surgery was traumatic and risky. No anesthesia was available, surgeons’ cleanliness habits were anything but, and this was a time when most physicians believed that pus from a surgical incision was a “good thing” instead of an ominous onset of sepsis. In fact, surgeons were known as having a particular odor when they were working: “good old hospital stink” which was really the smell of rotting flesh and blood from their time in the operating theater. Crikey.
It was actually safer to have an operation at your own home (instead of in hospital) – hospitals had mortality rates that were three to five times higher. Curiously, Death was known at the time as Old Jacky, and some patients were said to be able to predict who would recover and who would die during surgery. Odds were that the patient would die…
In fact, hospitals were such filthy places that many of them had a person who was charged with going around to rid the patient mattresses of lice. In fact, this person was more highly paid than surgeons, so that demonstrates how important hospitals viewed this lice person.
Despite being such places of high mortality rates, there were a lot of hospital expansions and excitement about new techniques for surgeons at this time. The latest official medical text, The Art of Surgery, was in its ninth edition and was such a respected resource that a copy of it was given to every single doctor in the federal army during the Civil War.
The medical field was still ignoring germ theory though, and so public health was still pretty terrible, particularly for those who were in poverty. The world’s first flushing toilet came about during Albert’s Great Exhibition, and more 800,000 people paid a penny to test these facilities out for themselves during their visit.
(Interestingly (for me – maybe not for you!), this is where the English saying, “going to spend a penny” (for needing to go to the lavatory) arose. I remember my grandma frequently using this euphemism when I was growing up, and I always thought it was because in my childhood (1960s/1970s), the lavatories at the local park would have a locking mechanism so anyone in need would have to put a coin (usually a big penny) into the slot before it opened. I can only imagine how many wet pants this tradition caused British schoolchildren as they didn’t have a penny to use.)
London, packed with all these thousands of visitors for the Great Exhibition, was not really equipped to deal with the teeming masses, and there was a time when the river Thames was called “The Great Stink” due to it smelling particularly badly due human excrement that had piled up on the riverbanks. Yuck, but where else were people supposed to go?
Back to Victorian medicine: Fitzharris uses a wide variety of sources for this history, including one called the Yearbook of Medicine, Surgery, and Their Allied Sciences, which gave the helpful statement:
“The bandages and instruments which have been employed for gangrenous wounds ought not, if possible, to be employed a second time…”
This was the world of medicine that Lister entered, after having given his first speech at his new job in LATIN because the establishment believed that that showed these men (of course) were of higher learning. (Imagine the reaction of today’s surgeons being told to do that…)
(Non sequitur: Glasgow (in Scotland where Lister’s first job was) was actually growing in such numbers that people called it “the second City of the Empire” after London. Well, didn’t know that.)
I think it’s best to do bullet points from now on…:
Lister was extremely interested in the parallel work of Louis Pasteur and his research on fermentation and the decomposition of organic matter. Lister was convinced that it was linked with the health of surgical wounds, but no one else was ready to listen yet.. (Curiously, another doc, Thomas Spencer Wells, was also interested in Pasteur’s work. Wells happened to be the surgeon for Queen Victoria… I love these overlaps!)
There’s also a good link between Lister and Lord Brougham (who founded University College of London where my brother teaches). Lord Brougham was president of the both the university and the hospital, and Lister was trying to get a gig teaching there as a professor. Brougham is also the name for a type of carriage and was so named for this guy. (See here for more on Lord Brougham and his travelling mummified body.) After other doctors started to believe that Lister was onto something with his cleanliness theories, they began to be known as the “Listerians” and as they became more established in the medical world, they gradually started to spread the theory throughout the profession.
Random trivia: it was around this time that more personal hygiene items started to come on to the market, including a mouth-wash called, wait for it, Listerine. Developed by an American in Philadelphia after he had listened to a speech by Lister as part of his professional medical society meeting… It was marketed as a variety of things, including a treatment for dandruff, a floor cleaner, and notably, even a cure for gonorrhea. (I know. I’d never put this together with Lister either…)
All this was happening around the time of a big flu epidemic that occurred earlier than the most famous flu epidemic of 1918. This particular epidemic was in 1889-1890, and brought a doctor to the fore named Robert Wood Johnson, who, influenced by one of Lister’s talks, joined together with his two brothers to develop a company focused on developing sterile surgical dressings and sutures. The name of the company: Johnson & Johnson. Huh.
(And also, around this time, was the start of public health and John Snow mapping the outbreak of cholera… Well, I never. It’s fascinating how things overlap sometimes…)
And, really, the information goes on and on in one of the most interesting reads I’ve had this year.
Honestly, if you’re looking for some great non-fiction about a field that still holds its importance today, Fitzharris is a great guide to show you the way of Victorian medicine. I loved it (in case you can’t tell).
For some Victorian social history reads, you could try these:
With the arrival of December comes the end-of-the-semester projects such as grading and finishing up some work writing and looking forward (very looking forward) to the holiday break.
I’ve been so lucky this semester in terms of having some really hard-working students who are willing to learn what I’m trying to teach, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m only in my second year of college teaching, and I want them to have the best college writing experience that I can possibly give them, so I’m always reading how to improve my teaching, both in and out of the classroom.
Finals Week starts this Friday, so that means that classes are all wrapped up for the most part now. No more power-points (which has been the name of the game this semester); now, I just need to get them organized in files on my computer ready for next semester, finish up the grades, and hopefully, have a much more relaxed schedule.
Plans over Christmas mean not much, really. Superhero and I have quite a few days off work, so we’ll be putting up the decorations (nothing too crazy but it’s fun), and then just hanging out until the new year. May be some small travel, but it’s up in the air right now, but if we stay or if we go, it’s fine either way.
This last time last year I was about to have surgery on my ankle which rather put a damper on things, so no surgery this year means a much more relaxing time off (for both me and for the Superhero – he won’t have to drive me around everywhere!)
I’ve been reading, and so here’s a couple of reviews of two titles that didn’t make it on to the blog proper just yet. They’re both good reads – just haven’t had the time/energy to compile a proper review. (I must admit that I had a better read of one more than other.)
Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung. Just like it says on the tin, this is a graphic novel about a young woman coming to realize (and accept) her introvert tendencies. It’s like a more personal Quiet (SusanCain), but with lots of pictures. I’m torn about these “quiet books”.
Yes, I might be more of a quiet person than other people, but I don’t consider it to be a pathological weakness (which is sometimes the feeling that I get from some authors about the topic). I’m not weird (others may disagree!), I think that there are plenty of people like me, and luckily, I think the world is becoming a lot more accepting of us non-noisy folks.
I do admit that I may feel like this perhaps because (a) I’m old enough to not be that concerned about what other people think about me, and (b) the world knows more about how different people view the environment and the people who surround them. When Cain’s book first came out, was she the first author to really focus on this aspect of people? I seem to remember there being quite a kerfuffle about her non-fiction book at the time.
The second title that I’ve finished was a charming nature-focused book by Sy Montgomery called How to be a good creature: A memoir in thirteen animals. This was a shorter read, wherein Montgomery recalls thirteen animals with whom she’s had friendships of one sort or another. What was really good about this read were the lithographic illustrations by Rebecca Green. Just a sweet book to read, really.
I’ve also just finished a great non-fiction read about Joseph Lister and his impact on Victorian surgery, which was great. However, I’m going to put together a longer review about that…
Speaking of longer, I’m currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots, which is close to 1,000 pages. For some reason, I’m not hyperventilating about the length of this book, but I must admit that it would probably be easier to read on a Kindle. 🙂
Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.
Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.
Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…
To the facts:
Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)
Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :
Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…”
Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face. In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …
Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.
After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….
“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”
Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
“From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”
(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)
She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.) She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.
Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways.
So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
Life has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.
Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.
Reading just how badly people behaved during this time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.
It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).
The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)
Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.
(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)
Wanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…
And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)
Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂