Travel: New Mexico Camping.

This is our Tiger Moth camper and the truck (which blocked the wind from the cold North that weekend.)

With the pandemic as it is (as I’m sure you know), it has meant a LOT of staying home and not traveling so the Superhero and I were getting some itchy feet and decided to visit the Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico the other weekend.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of camping in the world but one way I’ve learned that I do like is to take our tiny camper and the truck and drive off to the wilds somewhere. It was a five-hour drive one way (so quite a hike) but for distances around here in West Texas, that’s not too bad…

And you know what? It was really fun. I was so surprised. (Past experiences have not been that way, but they were long ago with different equipment and levels of attitude, as well. 🙂 )

For this trip, the Superhero had gone above and beyond in terms of being well organized and producing meals out in the open and I wanted for nothing that we didn’t have. (Very impressive to me.) It was so quiet out on the grasslands. Since it is open prairie, there are no trees and the view was never-ending.

The sunsets were amazing (see pic above) and you could hear the wildlife around you: mostly birds during the day and then a pack of coyotes at night. (Surprisingly, our dog (who came with us) didn’t really react to this, not even a bark or a growl. Perhaps she knew that there were more of them than of her?)

So – not a lot of reading but we did listen to an audio book on the drive there and back – lots of time to do that! – and then I read more the next day. The camping experience was worth it though and I’m looking forward to the next time (may be later this summer).

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time Machine (1960) - IMDb

After reading The Invisible Man (1897), I was curious about other H.G. Wells’ work so picked up this title up. This was his debut novel and was shortish and fairly famous and is early sci-fi – all good things in my book. I enjoyed it more than The Invisible Man, mainly because the protagonist was much more likable. (I know that I don’t have to like the protag to enjoy a story, but it doesn’t hurt if you do like him or her.)

So this novella features the lead character called only The Time Traveller. (He’s given other names in later adaptations but in the original version, he is just called this.) He is an inventor and scientist of a type, and is describing his adventures at a small dinner party with a handful of friends. It’s an effective framing device for the story and allows Wells to show how the other guests react to what The Time Traveller describes in his adventures.

As with The Invisible Man, there is quite a bit of solid science talk here to explain how time travel could theoretically work, and in the early stages of testing, The Time Traveller only travels a few hours of time. As he gets braver, he continues to travel forward hundreds of years where he meets two new species of beings, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are small surface-dwelling vegetarian peoples who are peaceful but not very active and have little initiative. (Was Wells criticizing the veggie diet here? Was he a big meat-eater in his real life?)

On the other hand, the Morlocks are larger warrior-type people who live entirely underground their whole lives, and it’s clear to the reader who Wells admires more. This is also a pretty political novel, just as The Invisible Man was in some ways, since it’s very referential to the social-class-based system: the weakened posh Eloi up above in the sunlight living a charmed life whilst the Morlocks are stuck working in mines under the surface of the earth, producing all the power for the Eloi. It’s not subtle at all, but that’s not to say that it’s not a powerful set-up at the same time.

The narrative continues with The Time Traveller moving even further forward in time, over centuries, to see how the Earth continues to develop and as the years drop off, he sees Earth collapse under the fading sun as society and its peoples fade away as the temperatures drop and freeze. Like I mentioned, it’s not subtle or hopeful, but if you read it in the political subtext, then it’s pretty interesting.

Wells himself was a futurist with a progressive view and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times. He was trained in biology at the Royal College of Science (you can see his science training in the writing), and he was an outspoken Socialist (also obvious in his writing that I’ve read). He married but messed around, including having a three-year affair with Elizabeth von Arnim and one with author Rebecca West.

I’m enjoying these reading adventures with Wells and he was pretty prolific so there is more from which to choose. Which one is next?…

India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking – Anand Giridharadas (2011)

What separated me from [India] was more than just the barriers of time. There was the further distance of my own false visions and the need for revisions. Fragments of memory floated in me. Some were once true but had, in the time of my parents’ absence from India, become false; some were true from the start and so remained; some were never true. To return to India in this way, as the son of those who had left, was to know dizzying change – and change as much in the seer as in the seen.

Strolling through another Dewey decimal number, I found myself in the world of travel and wanting something really different from Victorian books, I thought I would go to India and I pulled this one off the shelf. I entered the book thinking that it would be along the lines of a more traditional travelogue (albeit one from the POV of a returning resident) but it was a rather different read than that. It was good, for the most part, but it wasn’t quite what I had expected (although I accept that perhaps the subtitle should have clued me in a bit more).

Giridharadas is an American-born son of first-generation immigrant parents who emigrated to the US for new opportunities and a better life than they believed they could get if they stayed in India. Having only experienced Indian life through infrequent trips “home” to India throughout childhood, the author decides to upsticks and move back to India as an adult: to experience an “intimate portrait” of his new-to-him country and culture.

Having grown up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Giriharadas only knows the India of these infrequent trips “back home” with his family, and as a fellow immigrant myself, I can relate to how these trips, fun as they can be, are sometimes hard work with pressure to do everything and see everyone within the short time limits of the vacation. It’s a lovely problem to have – so many friends and things to do! – but it’s also pretty tiring at times.

Giriharadas wants to experience “real” Indian life through his own lens, as opposed to that of his parents’ own memories. What was the “true” experience of life in India? Was it as his parents (and he) remembered? Or would it be new and updated now that technology was widespread and easily adopted for many people? And how had that impacted the culture and lifestyles of typical Indian citizens?

So, this book is like a memoir in some ways: his parents’ memories seen through the filter of his own American childhood (and the visits) but it was also an outsider’s perspective on how life had evolved in the modern world for the India of today.

Chapters are divided into large themes, such as “Anger”, “Pride”, “Freedom” – large categories that allow Giriharadas to group many disparate topics together and which works for the most part.

As a reader, the different pieces were fit together like a jigsaw puzzle but it did wear a little thin towards the last third of the book. (But how else to cover such a huge variety of subjects? I don’t know.)

The first two-thirds was the strongest piece, the final third (as mentioned) was a little drawn out and rather too navel-gazing for me, but then I had entered the book thinking it was a straightforward travelogue so it may have been some of my own fault really.

Despite this slightly tepid review, I did enjoy the majority of this read. Giriharadas is a solid writer with good descriptive skills and a journalist’s eye towards the internal and the external world. As an Indian, he was allowed access to “real life” India via his friends and family and it’s interesting to read how his perspective changes the longer that he lives there.

People change – and so do countries – and it was thought-provoking for me to think that something similar might occur to me should I ever upsticks back to England after more than 30 years away in the Colonies…

Library Loot: Feb. 09 2021

This morning, I received my second COVID shot (oowwee) (since I fit into a higher risk category), and this went smoothly — if not painlessly. 🙂

And – it just so happens that the immunization clinic was in very close vicinity to the library so of course, I ended up popping in there “just to see”… (Didn’t want to be rude, after all.) 😉

And then I came out with these lovelies (top to bottom in photo above):

  • The Body in the Library – Agatha Christie (can’t stop reading her every now and then – she’s like eating peanuts! 😉 )
  • The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells (F/Sci fi?)
  • Roads – Larry McMurtry (NF/travel essays). (In progress. He’s true to the title: he’s talking about actual roads. Dear me. It’s a little like watching paint dry in its level of excitement so prob. going to DNF.)
  • Plainsong – Kent Haruf (another blogger was raving about this title so thought I’d do a reread from a long time ago).
  • A Traveller’s Life – Eric Newby (NF/travel essays)

The first one (after I’ve finished my current read): Roads… (I miss traveling anywhere so this might scratch that itch.)

January 2021 Reading Review

The reads for January 2021 included:

  • The Borden Tragedy – Rick Geary (NF/graphic)
  • Daytripper – Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (NF/graphic)
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood (reread – F/spec fiction)
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Katherine Rooney (F)
  • The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.) (NF travel)
  • The Closed Circle – Jonathan Coe (F)
  • News of the World – Paulette Giles (F)
  • A Town Called Alice – Neville Shute (classic – F)
  • Misery – Stephen King (F)

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in January 20219
  • Total number of pages read 2.739 pages (av. 304). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • Diversity 1 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books. One borrowed book.

Plans for February 2021 include picking up a classic or two (but which one? That’s the question. I’m thinking either Dickens or Zola but I’ll see what jumps out.) I also want to include more POC writing. Continue this pace of reading and perhaps read more from my own TBR as opposed to those titles from the library.

The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.)

I am a big fan of the America’s Best (insert your choice of writing style here) and so couldn’t resist scooping this title up when I saw it for sale.

(See previous reviews for 2000, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018 here.)

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!

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights – Gretchen Sorin (2020)

With the world in this state of flux (for all of the many different reasons), I’m really interested in learning more about the history and the lives of the many people who call the U.S. “home”.

At the same time, I’m also committed to reading more BIPOC authors and topics, so toddled off to the library to see what I could track down on the shelves.

“Driving While Black” covers some of the history of American civil rights through the lens of automobiles and their overlap with social history. This was a fascinating read.

As the cover copy states, this book “reveals how the car – the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility – has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing [B]lack families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road.”

And although a lot of this history may not have been unfamiliar to me, the manner of how these two topics were combined and presented was eye-opening for me, as a white reader. Through careful documented research, Sorin puts together a thorough timeline of the parallels between the introduction (and subsequent widespread adoption) of the car and the increasing social roles of Black people in America:

Travel for Negroes inside the borders of the United States can become an experience so fraught with humiliation and unpleasantness that most colored people simply never think of a vacation in the same terms as the rest of America.

The Saturday Review, 1950

Geographer Karl Raitz has described the American roadside as a public space open for everyone, but the roadside itself only represented private interests.

This presented a dilemma for Black travelers: sure, you can buy a car (if you can afford it); sure, you can drive your car along the roads for great distances throughout the U.S., BUT if you want to actually stop at any point along your journey, these “private interests” (the hotels, restaurants, rest-stops etc.) are not always going to be welcoming for you and your family.

So, the introduction of the car to Black consumer symbolized freedom, just as it did for other car owners, but only the freedom of driving along the actual macadam. If you, as a Black driver, became hungry or tired and wanted to stop along the way, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Do you see the dilemma now?

Sorin goes into well-documented depth on this using oral and written histories to bring you, as the reader, into this problematic world. As the twentieth century progressed, American life slowly and incrementally improved for Black families but it was geographically uneven and in irregular fits and starts. Sorin’s decision to intertwine consumer history of the car industry and the social history of Black America made this a riveting read which made me shake my head as the stupidity of racism.

Throughout the twentieth century, America was a confusing mix of integrated and non-integrated places which made traveling by car hazardous for Black drivers without significant preparation.

What were your options for help if you had a flat tire by the side of the road on a highway? Where would your family sleep at night? Have you packed enough food and drink for the non-stop journey (obviously you can’t stop at any old restaurant along the way)? Would your life be safe if you were driving in this particular community after sunset? (There were more than 150 “sundown towns” across the U.S.). And don’t even think about what your choices were if one of your party became sick and needed medical care…)

It is insane that the Land of the Free allowed these horrible constraints on some of its very own citizens. How traumatic for these early Black travelers just to drive to see other family members!

“At the Time of the Louisville Flood” – 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. (Getty Images.)

You’ve probably heard of the Green Book (link to book review), one of several travel guides for Black drivers on where to go, where to eat and where to stay, but this was just one of several publications that were popular at the time. (Huh. Didn’t know that but it makes sense that Victor Green wasn’t the only one to see the need.)

As cultural mores slowly started to shift and the white-owned travel business saw that more money could be made by catering to Black business, more hotels and restaurants gradually started to cater to these new customers. The Civl Rights Act of 1964 further accelerated this program (although it was achingly slow in parts of the South), but people were stubborn to change and adapt.

The problem of [B]lack business is not the absence of [B]lack support, but the absence of white support.

John H. Johnson, owner, Ebony magazine, 1971.
The Post-Racial Negro Green Book by Jan Miles (2017).

And although life has improved for Black Americans in the 21st century, it’s still got a ways to go. (Witness: police brutality et al.)

In 2017, author Jan Miles published “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book“, which is her take on the historical travel guide but this one is a 2013-2016 state-by-state collection of police brutality, racial profiling and everyday racist behavior by businesses and private citizens. Yikes.

Suffice to say that this was a powerful read for me. It wasn’t perfect in terms of the writing (quite a bit of repetition which could have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor), but the content more than made up for that.

Highly recommended!

Summer mini-reviews

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. 

A tricky (and miniature) jigsaw puzzle completed the other day. 🙂

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.

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo (2013)

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. 

Bernadine Evaristo, award-winning author.

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>. 

Reading Catchup

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)

The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think). 

I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…

The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights… 

Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win. 

(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)

The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.

And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!

And naturally – jigsaws! 😃