And – just like eating a big old box of chocolates, there was a mixed bunch of offerings and for the 2019 edition, and only one stinker in the whole selection. 🙂
I was pleased to see that this edition’s editor was female – so often they are typically white males which usually means that 90 percent of the content are also white males. Fuller very ably turned that formula on its head and this book includes almost 50 percent female writers of mixed diversity. And funnily enough, the excellent quality of the writing doesn’t suffer for this proportion! 😉
Snide remarks aside, the writing topics varied from bachelorette parties in Nashville to a tiny village in China where dissident residents are taken on a “tourist” ride by the authorities to the aquatic world of the lion fish and its passionate followers.
In all honesty, I loved nearly all of the articles/essays included so I think that equals a great read for me. Referring back to the analogy of the box of chocolates, each essay hit the spot (apart from that one I mentioned earlier) and that might have been me just being a picky reader.
Authors included a wide variety (not sure of the ethnicity of these folks though) and their work had been published in an array of outlets, including Harper’s, Airbnb magazine, The New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine and more, but every essay included was extremely well written and well organized.
If I were teaching a creative nonfiction writing class, I’d certainly require my students to read some of the examples as models to follow.
This was a true joy to read at the start of the new year. Hopefully, it portends lots more “pure joy” reads in the near future!
Although I have been somewhat absent from the blog (sorry), I have been busy doing other things. I’ve also been reading (albeit somewhat slower than normal) and I thought I would just do some short reviews about those titles:
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (2003)
An excellent read from Atwood, part one in the (sci-fi-ish) MaddAdam trilogy, and now I’m psyched to track down the next installment. I went to the library but someone else has the same idea and had checked out the one copy so, frustratingly, I have to wait. Waah. But at least I have about five quillion other titles from which to choose my next read whilst I cool my heels.
Then I whipped through a quick and fluffy read of Katherine Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. It was ok but rather a forgettable read. My friend loved it, though, so perhaps take my experience with a grain of salt. It might have been me…. 😉
Now, I’m immersed in some excellent NF: America’s Best Travel Writing 2019 (Alexandra Fuller, ed.) and so since we can’t travel right now, this is the next best thing (since we can travel via the written word). A longer review to follow…
And then – guess what? It snowed seven inches last night and so we’ve been snuggled up inside when we haven’t been outside goofing around with Nova Dog (who ADORES snow).
Plus – a jigsaw puzzle. Wow. I just love these things. 🙂
So, as mentioned in the previous post (re: me not being up to reading actual books), since I’m now feeling a lot better, I am now actually picking up books and having a lot of fun doing so.
In the spirit of brevity, I thought I’d just do a quick review round-up of the titles I’ve finished up – a mix of both library books and my own TBR. To the reviews:
Cider with Rosie– Laurie Lee (1959). A reread but still very enjoyable. Absolutely delicious descriptions of England in the 1930s: the countryside, the food, the perspective of life as seen by a young happy boy… All good things. If you haven’t ever read this title (or perhaps it’s time for a reread?), then you wouldn’t go far wrong if you added this to your TBR pile. (TBR title).
The Best American Travel Writing 2019– Alexandra Fuller (ed.); Jason Wilson (series ed.). This is one of the NFs I have going on right now so review to come. (TBR title.)
Oryx and Crake– Margaret Atwood (2003) – This is one of the F I have going on right now so review to come with the end goal of me reading the whole trilogy. (Library copy.)
All Things Bright and Beautiful– James Herriott (1974). I was looking for some comfort reading at the start of December and then remembered how sweet the Herriott books can be. So, off the shelf with this one. And – it was a super read. (TBR title.)
A forgettable collection of essays by Nick Hornby (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) along with an actual DNF of another essay collection, this time by David Sedaris (2020). I’ve read other work by Sedaris and have found it to be a little patchy in quality, and this was the case with this selection of his work. (Library book.)
Had the annual read of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol– just love Dickens’ writing and this story was an excellent start to the holiday season (library copy). Other seasonal reads included: Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (TBR copy), Tolkein’s Letters from Father Christmas (sobs but in a good way) (TBR copy). Carol Ann Duffy, England’s poet laureate (still?), had a short stocking=stuffer kind of read with Another Night Before Christmas (TBR copy) and then David Sedaris’ collection of holiday-related essays called A Christmas on Ice (TBR copy).(This book is pretty funny unlike his book mentioned above.)
By then, I had had enough Christmas reading and started to move on to different titles on the TBR pile. I started with a John Steinbeck title, America and Americans, which collected together his thoughts on America (the country) and the people who live in it. Travel writing sort of thing and very good.
Pulled a few graphic novel-type books for an afternoon of a different kind of reading. The best was the Get Fuzzy cartoon collection, but Honorable Mention should go to The Borden Tragedy by Rick Geary, a graphic novel that details the Lizzy Borden murder case back in history. Really interesting, btw. (Library.)
I whipped through a few books by English H.E. Bates: The Darling Buds of May, A Breath of Fresh Air, and When the Green Woods Laugh– a good selection of some strong English countryside writing. I enjoyed it at the time but I must admit it was more of a palate cleanser than an epic read. So, three more off the TBR.
And then rounding out the holidays was a reread of Emile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise. This one I loved (see an earlier review of this read here) and after researching Zola a little more, realized that he has masses of other work out there so I’m excited to see what other titles I can find on the stacks. ETA: Just checked out Germinal by Zola, so we’ll see!
As the new year beckons, I raise a glass of champers to you and yours for a peaceful, productive and fun 2021. Happy reading ahead!
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 2019 – 48. (Average: 4 books/mo.) This is waaaay down from a typical reading year, but then this wasn’t a typical year! I’m ok with that.
Biggest monthly totals in the summer months (when school is out). Smallest total was in January.
This was composed of a focus on NF. (Actual numbers were 23 F and 52 NF. Of the NF, the majority were bio/autobio, similar to last year’s total.)
Authors: 25 M and 23 F. I’m happy with this split…
Authors of color (AOC)/Topics related to POC: 21 (44%. That’s pretty good, I think.)
Where were these books from? I’m pleased with this one: 69 percent were from my own TBR. (Progress of sorts.)
Number of pages: 13,961.
Year range of publication date: 1843 (A Christmas Carol/Dickens) to 2020 (various). 1996 average.
Shortest book length: 98 pp (When the Green Woods Laugh/H. E. Bates). Longest: 581 pp (Invisible Man/Ellison). 298 pp. average.
Overall, this was a fun reading year and I really enjoyed my focus on increasing the number of BIPOC authors in the list (42 percent of the reads were by BIPOC authors). Definitely going to continue with that campaign.
Another focus: reading more from my TBR. (Insert hollow laugh right here.) 😉
Additionally, I had two really good 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 2020? None really (apart from the yearly read of the AP Style Book :-] ). Just more of the same, so long as it’s fun.
Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 6 library books, 1 owned books and 0 e-books.
Plans for July 2020 include a month of teaching online Summer School at the university, prepping their lectures and grading work… Apart from that, lots of reading, jigsaw puzzles and hanging out. Temperatures are very hot outside for the most part, so it’s a pretty indoor life right now. 😉
Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those.
My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election.
I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time.
Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open.
I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:
Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉
Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok.
Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!)
The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy.
My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country.
Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.
After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer.
Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.
*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.
Wow. I have just finished up my first read of Bernadine Evaristo’s novel called “Mr. Loverman” – and I loved it. There is not one doubt in my mind that this will not make my Top Ten List of books at the end of the year. Right now, it’s tantalizingly close to the top…
Yes, it was THAT good. I enjoyed this read even more than her 2019 Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, so whatever your experience was with that the highly regarded novel, good or bad, there is an even higher possibility that you will enjoy this novel as much (or more).
Such high words of praise, right? Let me tell you more….
The actual plot revolves around Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old British immigrant, born on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, who now lives his life in Hackney in London. Barrington (now called Barry) is known for this retro dress sense and as a husband, father and a grandfather.
He’s been married to wife Carmel for years and has two daughters.
At the same time as Barry has been married to Carmel, he’s also been living a secret parallel life with his childhood friend and lover, Morris.
Barry’s retired from his factory job and now has some big choices to make. (And never fear. I’m not giving anything away about the plot here. It’s all on the back-cover text of the paperback I have.)
Barry is a joy to get to know – he is cheeky, mischievous, careful of others’ feelings. At the same time, Barry is deeply flawed in some ways and yet this only makes him even more human.
He has a grown-up family with wife Carmel, but he’s in love with Morris (and has been for his whole life since he was a child on his island home). His marriage is going into meltdown and Morris would like him to move in with him into his flat. What to do, what to do.
Evaristo has written this novel mostly from the POV of Barry (with occasional flashes of POV from other characters) and to stay true to that vision, she has written it all in a strong Caribbean accent (mixed up with a bit of London dialect).
At the same time, the story is also deeply immersed in the older Caribbean immigrant culture of Britain and I found it to be fascinating to see Barry glide in and out of these overlapping environments, each with their own particular set of mores and expectations.
Although this novel is a love story, it also addresses the more weighty issues of prejudice, truth (the definition of truth, to yourself and to others), being a good person, love-is-love, family relationships… It sounds like a very heavy read but through these different POVs, it’s handled with aplomb by the author.
Barry is hilarious at times. Once I got the hang of his Antiguan accent, I was swept up into the story and stuck closely with him as he tries to figure out what he wants. He’s a caring man – he doesn’t want to be malicious to anyone but he’s old, his family has grown and the marriage seems to consist of constant bickering.
Morris is his safe haven – but is he willing to risk everything he knows for his childhood friend and lover?
The only downside I saw in the entire novel was the final chapter. It reads as though it’s just stuck on to the plot at a later date and time in that there is a definite change in the writing style and tone. Barry’s POV remains the focus, but the actual voice of Barry is so completely different.
It’s set a year ahead of time (I think), and there is the possibility that the characters could have grown and/or matured in some way. The POV just didn’t even sound as if it was originating with the same character.
The writing style (even some of the word choices) seemed rather out-of-character after the previous 298 pages. It didn’t ruin the novel but I was left rather puzzling about why the book ended up like this.
Despite that little hiccup, I still adored this read. I loved getting to know Barry and Morris, his adult daughters are hilarious in their own ways, and it’s a complex love letter to the city of London and its melting-pot residents.
Just loved this and am now planning a second read. I’m sure that there were quite a few things that I missed in the first time through…
Plus – it looks Evaristo has other texts out there to chase down. <rubs hand with glee>.
Thought I would do more of a roundup post for today, just to catch things up a bit more than they are right now. Pandemic life continues for most of us, I think, along with some protesting and various other sociopolitical ills – but we’ll always have some good books to read. :-}
It’s storm season here in West Texas, which means that hail, thunder and lightning (and rain, of course) are fairly frequent visitors in the late afternoons of early summer.
With the increasing frequency and severity of weird weather here, last Spring we forked out to have a metal storm shelter put into the floor of the garage and last Tuesday, we had enough reason to go into it (both because the weather had potential to be tornadic and also because we needed the practice of using it).
Let me describe this shelter for you: it’s in the photo above so you can see it’s not very big. It’s made of metal and is sunk into the concrete ground of our garage, so it’s close enough to our house for us to nip out there if we need to. Just big enough for 2-3 people (and/or pets).
The Superhero and I had our strategy planned out previously and thought that the storm coming through town had enough potential to be dangerous.
Additionally, we were also listening to the National Weather Service radio and their announcer kept repeating (on a loop) that the storm was favorable for tornadoes (as la Wizard of Oz), that people should take immediate shelter as complete destruction of property was imminent, and that, in fact, a large tornado had been spotted just a few miles away from where we lived. Crikey.
So we scooped up the one cat we could find, shoved her in a carrier, grabbed the German Shepherd and trotted out to the shelter, with the very real concern that a big tornado could fall from the sky and completely obliterate our house and neighborhood at any minute. We’d already put together a storm shelter kit (with the essentials) so picked that up on the way out and then climbed down into this small metal box shelter.
Storm shelters are not particularly made for long-term (or even short-term) comfort for its occupants. They are designed to withstand incredible EF-5 tornadoes (and their associated weather patterns), so they don’t have any AC or any other creature comforts.
Basically, we were sitting in a hot underground metal shoe box with a frightened cat and a large nervous dog.
It’s pretty strange as there is nothing you can do about anything outside this shelter – you just have to wait, sweating and hoping that, when you slide back the protective top lid, your house is still there when you climb out.
As it so happened, there was no tornado (phew!) but we did have large hail stones (see pic above) and there was terrific thunder and lightning all around us, so I must admit it was slightly nerve-wracking for both the humans and the pets.
Luckily, it didn’t last long and we are more prepared to handle this situation next time. Practice makes perfect etc. etc. Amazingly enough, our roof and cars weren’t damaged in the hail. 🙂
Apart from that, it’s been pretty quiet around here. The Superhero had the week off from work, which was fun, and we finished up some jobs around the house, took Nova Dog hiking in some nearby state parks and piddled around.
I have also done some reading…. 🙂
COVID has enabled me to focus a lot on my TBR pile (since the library has been closed until early last week), and I’ve really enjoyed reading through some of these long-held but long-neglected titles. First up is a novel about a small of people who pick strawberries in the English fields…
Published in the UK as “Two Caravans” (but in the US as “Strawberry Fields”), this 2007 novel by Marina Lewycka was a good and fast read. Lewycka is the author of several novels, one of which is the best-selling novel, “A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine” (which also features a group of European immigrants who have come to England to work picking fruit) and so “Two Caravans” follows a similar narrative arc in some ways.
The characters in the more recent novel are a scrappy group of immigrants from Africa, China, Malaysia and Eastern Europe, all hard-working people trying to get a foothold to live the Western life in England. However, their current lives are far from that comfortable dream, seeing as they are being (poorly) paid as farmworkers hand-picking strawberries in the Kent countryside while living in two caravans (i.e. tiny and very basic RV-type vehicles), one caravan for women and one for the men.
As the small group live and work, they coalesce into a tight-knit friendship of sorts and life is running fairly smoothly for everyone (including their farmer employer), but when the farmer’s wife finds out about her husband’s fling with one of the workers, the jobs evaporate and the small group is forced to travel on the roads of England to find safe haven.
This most recent novel is more serious, more political and covers substantial issues such as human trafficking, immigration, homelessness and other social ills.
Good read – I rather felt as though the novel was trying to cover too many social issues, but it was still an enjoyable read with some charming characters.
According to the author, the actual origin of the popular drink of gin-and-tonic actually got kickstarted with the disease malaria and its not-very-tasty medicine, quinine.
In the early days of the British Raj, there was a big public health problem with malaria, and quinine was a main staple of malaria prevention and treatment. Dobson reports that the British people would add quinine to Indian tonic water (to make it taste better?) and that led to the basis of a gin-and-tonic.
(Something similar happened in the States as well: during the U.S. Civil War, every Union soldier in the malarial zone was given a daily dose of quinine sulphate dissolved in whisky. Huh.)
Unrelated random fact: One famous smallpox survivor was Queen Elizabeth I who contracted the disease in 1592. Her penchant for wearing her face covered in white lead and vinegar is thought to have been her strategy to cover up her smallpox facial scars. They are also thought to have been the reason why she didn’t want to get married as she didn’t want to show anyone her scarred skin. (Poor thing.)
Stalin had smallpox as well, btw, but he had all his photos touched up to hide that. (Remind you of any other orange-colored world leader who would also probably do that?) President Lincoln survived the same disease. And so did Pocahantas (who died in 1616 on a visit to England, possibly of smallpox.)
Moving on to polio and its history of vaccination: I didn’t know this, but in 1955, Cutter Laboratories (a U.S. company and one manufacturer of the then-recently licensed Salk vaccine), distributed faulty serum. A total of 200,000 people were inoculated with this serum which then turned out to contain “virulent non-attenuated polio virus”. Seventy thousand people became ill; 200 children were left paralyzed and ten died. (I’m wondering if this is controversy is somehow related to the ferocious antivaxxers of today? Vaccinate your kids, folks.)
So, by now, you might have surmised that I may have enjoyed this gruesome but straightforward book. I really did (and so much so that I’m going to keep this copy to read at another time).
However, there was one (easily preventable) thing that kept popping up – poor production work with the graphics.
Whoever the poor soul was who added the graphic elements to one of the later proofs kept overlaying their image outlines so that the rest of the image field would cover up one end of some of the paragraphs which meant that there were whole sections of text where you had to sort of guess what it was trying to say.
I don’t want to seem too judge-y. It’s an easy thing to miss, in general, but proofreading/editing should have happened. I would have thought that if you had a well-written serious tome about public health hazards from the past, the least you could do would be to check for that novice error. (Maybe it was an intern. It’s intern season…) 😉
If I had been Dobson, I would have been disappointed in the final product (if she ever saw it): her research, her words, probably her collection of illustrations – and then there is that?
That aside, the book did have some lovely qualities: glossy pages, plenty of high-res graphics, loads of historical ephemera and lots of intriguing sidebars with fascinating bits and pieces about whatever disease was the topic for that section.
Ghoulish but fascinating. Highly recommended.
Just FYI: Other medical history (or medical-related) reads for JOMP include:
Now, there is a dismal solitude… shops are shut… people rare, very few walk about… and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.
Thomas Vincent, describing the Great Plague of London, 1665-1666.
Seeing as we are in the midst of this current pandemic, what better time (thought I) than to read more about other diseases that have occurred throughout history. So, shopping my TBR shelves, I found this book…
This title was written by Mary Dobson, a medical historian who was director of the Wellcombe Unit for the History of Medicine and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. (Thus, she knows her facts and there are a lot of them. She’s also, pleasingly, a very good writer.)
As the book’s subtitle tells you, the contents cover health emergencies over the years, ranging from syphilis to schistosomiasis (due to parasitic worms in tropical aquatic snails) to SARS and bird flu.
It was really interesting to read that Dobson, a scholar of medical history, also mentions the then-current widespread concern for another modern flu pandemic, perhaps from animal vectors (and this was when the book was published in 2007, 13 years ago). And yet the Orange Goblin disbanded the U.S. Pandemic Taskforce last year since “we didn’t need it anymore.” <smh>
[Aside: I am so curious to read the not-yet-published NF account of this particular current-day pandemic. You know there are gonna be a few titles out there that will cover it.]
Back to the book: the chapters are divided into Bacterial Diseases, Parasitic Diseases, Viral Diseases and Lifestyle Diseases, and each chapter (and disease) goes into depth (including pretty detailed timelines) to cover the basic history of the topic for that section. It was absolutely fascinating for me.
Since I am a medical history nerd, I thought it might be best to approach this using bullet points. Here we go:
Quarantines first started when the Black Death arrived at a Venetian colony called Ragusa. The inhabitants detained travelers from an infected nearby island for thirty days (or trente giorni). This time period proved not quite long enough so they increased the time period to forty days (or quaranti giorni) – thus, the word “quarantine”. Now you know… 😉
Speaking of plague, you may remember that 17th-century physicians had the wearing-a-mask activity and social-distancing down to a science… They would also stuff herbs down the beak to help cover up the smell of rotting flesh. (See pic below.) Luckily, we don’t need that just yet. 🙂
Another word-related random fact: stethoscope. Invented in 1816 by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), who had been embarrassed when treating a young overweight woman patient. He had wanted to listen to her heart but didn’t want to put his ear directly against her chest, so he rolled up a tube of newspaper and bingo – the start of a new medical instrument. (“Stethos” is Greek for “chest”, and “skopein” means “to look at”.)
And OMG. I was thoroughly grossed out by the discussion of human worm infestations. One rather ethically-dubious experiment concerns two criminals who had been both condemned to death in the mid-19th-century. A researcher called Friedreich Küchenmeister fed the prisoners some pig meat with worm larvae inside it, and once the men had been put to death, scientists recovered adult tapeworms from their innards, one measuring 1.5m (or about 5ft) long. Euuugh. (One good thing about worms: they have potential to treat human illness as a form of biotherapy, but you’d have to (heavily) sedate me long-term for that procedure if the worms are alive when they’re put in me.)
The word “vaccination” originates from Latin “vacca” (which means the word for “cow”). Pasteur gave the procedure that name in honor of earlier researcher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who came up the idea of inoculating healthy people with cowpox to give them immunity to the more virulent and fatal smallpox, a big problem at the time.