Texas Quilts, Texas Women – Suzanne Yabsley (1986)

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Abstractions of battles and hardships or colorful events and personalities of the past are rendered on the quilt’s surface, but its real meaning is the spirit of the maker.

Prowling the library shelves one Saturday, I happened to come across some local history/ fabric art titles, and this volume jumped out and in my hands. After it sitting in the pile for a few days, its turn for reading finally came, and this was a good one.

Now, I’m not a person who quilts. I am not really a sewing person, but I enjoy cross-stitch and knitted during the teenaged years, and I adore looking at fabric arts. Combine “fabric arts” with pioneer Texas history, and we were off to the races.

As the title pretty much confirms, this was about Texas history combined with the history of women and quilts, and it was really fascinating.

Living in an area with its own history of the early pioneers, I frequently see reminders of early pioneer life: the land surrounding our city still resembles the same view that pioneers must have had when they first arrived on the South Plains, and there are several historical markers and a large university-related museum which focus on these early years with an emphasis on how the early (white) ranchers lived in dugouts and other wooden structures through the years, and much of our regional population here are descended from pioneer families.

(Our city wasn’t incorporated until the 1920’s, but there were plenty of First People who nomadically passed through this area, naturally, but the actual formal formation of the city came later. It’s rather a contentious history, I’m afraid.)

So – to the book itself. I ended up making a list of notes as I read through, and so that’s what you guys are getting. Hope that works. J

  • If you’ve ever seen a cowboy film that has the actual details historically correct, you may have seen cowboys on horses with a bedroll tucked behind them to the back of the saddle. That bedroll is called a “suggan”, and was usually a heavy hand-made quilt made from old wool pants, jeans or khaki pants (usually part of the trouser leg as that received the least wear). (Also included “tailor squares”, but not sure what they are. Anyone?)
  • Suggans were usually very rugged construction, and usually the cloth pieces are sewn around the edges (similar to a traditional quilt), but suggans have one big stitch (with the threads not cut off) in the middle of each square. This was a quick way to finish the quilt, and to make sure that it could withstand cowboy life on the prairie. (Strangely enough, I saw exactly one of these in a TV interview later on that same day, and squealed as I could now recognize it as a suggan. It’s the little things.)
  • Quilts rather slid from public popularity during the American equivalent of Victorian times, but when WWI occurred, quilt-making came back to the fore with the campaign slogan: Save the Blankets for the Boys Over There (1917). In 1918, WWI was still going on, but now the U.S. was deeply involved, and so the government used most of the country’s wood supply for commercial use, and instituted “Heatless Mondays”. (This makes me wonder if Paul McCartney’s vegetarian campaign slogan of “Meatless Mondays” was influenced by this saying…)

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  • Texas had its first female governor in the 1930’s: Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson. (Hmm. Going to have to look at this. I thought that there had only been Ann Richards, but it seems there is another contender. Good.)
  • According to the author, quilt-making is both an individual art and a group project, depending on where one is in the process. These are the steps:
    • Step One: Making the top of the quilt. Usually an individual project involving selecting the fabric and creating whatever design s/he wants to sew with the fabric pieces.
    • Step Two: Place both the (now-finished) quilt top piece on top of the filling (batting?) and the bottom sheet, and then put the quilt into the quilting frame. (Usually a large wooden frame that holds the layers of the quilt together so that the edges can be sewn shut and the pieces joined.

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  • This frame quilt (see above image) was large in size, and since most of the early pioneer homes were rather small (think Little House on the Prairie), the quilt frames were on a pulley system so that the quilt-in-progress could be lifted up to the ceiling to get it out of the way for day-to-day life. It was also a popular social occasion in rural areas (as you can see from the happy expressions of the people in the photo above). 🙂 I’m kidding.
  • Quilting bees are small groups than quilting groups which are smaller groups than quilting guild(s). Huh. (I’m guessing, but I think the bee reference is to do with the idea of bees being very busy? Not sure. Just made that up just now.)
  • Other cultures have quilting as well: the African-American culture has a quilting tradition, Mexico (and remember that Texas is really close to Mexico geographically so there was lots of inter-cultural influences) had colchas bordados (or embroidered blankets), and the Navajo made quilts using vertical stands as opposed to the horizontal ones.
  • Britches quilts were made out of the unused parts of trousers when the seat of the trousers got too worn to wear. Recycle, repurpose, reuse. 🙂

 

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A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power – Paul Fischer (2015) (353 pp.)

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With North Korea* in the news in the U.S. for a variety of reasons (but all revolving around how our Orange Goblin is handling world affairs), I thought it would be a good time to read some NF about this hermit country and its quite strange history. Thus, I happened across this title at the library and dug right in.

First things first: this is not an academic textbook in any way. This threw me off at first, especially as it’s billed non-fiction, but despite this, as I read further and deeper into the book, I was able to throw off my academic lens (not without challenges), and engage with this text along the same lines as I would approach having a cup of coffee with the author at some point. It’s entirely his perspective, and with a significant lack of sources to back things up, should be viewed that way. It’s not a bad thing at all, but it did mean that I had to slightly lower my expectations of the read. It’s still good though, but like I mentioned, more of a conversation with the author than an academic treatise of any nature. (However, to be fair, the error is entirely mine, but it worked out well in the end. The author is pretty funny in places.)

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Credit: Reuters.

North Korea (and its opposite world, South Korea) were the same harmonious country at one point, but after invasions and the U.S. Korean War, the country was geopolitically divided more or less in half, and that’s when the comparisons veer way off the rails. South Korea was (and remains a country) based on a capitalistic/Western approach. North Korea, through the lineage of the Kim family, has sealed itself and its citizens off from the rest of the world in almost every way possible. The “why” is a bit complicated and can be reviewed through other sources, but the end result of this and how it impacts the citizenry is fascinating. It’s almost so bad that you think “huh. Is this real?” It’s like a really bad film in places, and this metaphor brings us nicely to the main theme of this book.

So, as is the wont of dictators all over the world, what’s good for the geese is not so good for the gander, and so, despite cutting its citizens off from the rest of the outside world, its dictator (current Kim Jong Un) still has access to all the goodies of the Western world.

This book follows the events that happened when a young dictator (actually the current Jong Un’s father named Kim Jong Il) comes into power through succession.

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Note about the names: In Korean (both North and South), the first name you read is typically that person’s last name/surname. So, for Kim Jong Il, Kim is the family last name and Jong Il is the equivalent of the person’s first name(s). Kim Jong Il is the father of Kim Jong Un, and so on. It was current dictator Kim Jong Un’s grandfather who founded the country after it had been invaded by Japan. (Yes. It is a big confusing.)

(According to the author, until the early twentieth century, Koreans traditionally did not use family (or surnames/last names). When Japan colonized the peninsular, it required Koreans to use a family last name, and so a vast majority of the Koreans saw a way to reinvent themselves and their families by choosing a last name associated with the country’s landed gentry. Thus, there are only about 270 last names shared among the 75M Koreans (e.g. Kim, Pak, Lee, Park, Shin).

The strangeness goes on, and it’s hard to buy that people do go along with it, but when you consider that the cost of NOT believing it is execution or lifetime sentences of very hard manual labor without ever seeing or hearing from your family again, I can see why few may doubt what they are told, and even fewer can question anything and survive. (if someone in your family does run afoul of the government, not only is that person punished, but so also are the parents of that person, and the children of that person…)

So – to the actual events that are covered in this particular read. The father of the current dictator was really into Western movies, and is thought to have had one of the largest private movie collections in the world. Dismayed at the low level of quality that North Korean film producers had been putting out, Kim Jong Il decided to kidnap one of then South Korea’s most famed producers along with his wife who was a famous movie star and who would appear in his movies. She was also a movie star in her right, so it was a little as though North Korea kidnapped Brangelina….

The rest of the book covers who these folks were, what happened when they were kidnapped, and whether they ever escape the DPRK. (Do they? You’ll have to read it to find out.)

It’s a fascinating read, and gets more bizarre as you read deeper into the book. However, at the same time, as I learned more and more about this closed society, I realized that however strange these events were, they were not as weird as the dictator’s own world, and when the penalty for not believing is death, then I couldn’t really blame people to toe the line.

And then, if you think about it, North Koreans had never ever heard a different story apart from the ones about their Great Leader, so why would they question anything? Nothing would support thinking otherwise.

Plus – in the people’s defense, there are really no other avenues for learning about the events of the world apart from via state-sponsored propaganda. Plus – the people are so poor and overworked that they just don’t have the equipment to learn any other way. For example, to buy a television can take a year or more of salary – and that’s if you can find one to buy. Most people have access to a newspaper (usually in a local business), but if it contained a picture of Kim Jong Il and as it was forbidden to fold or crease his image, the newspaper was usually framed on the wall of a local business for people to look at (but not touch).

This was a very intriguing read for me.

 

* North Korea actually calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK) internally, but this name is not really recognized by countries outside of the country. (I think.)

The Lizard Cage – Karen Connelly (2005)

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It’s been a bit crazy at work this week, although, amazingly enough, we are almost halfway through the semester already. This new job keeps me busy, and busy equals happy for me. (Plus, I can’t quite believe that I actually hold this job sometimes as it’s that good!)

Apart from the being occupado at work, I’ve also been reading and writing in my spare time, and it’s finally reaching autumn temperatures around here more days than not, so what’s not to love?

There has been one tragic thing that occurred on campus last week, which was a troubled student shot and killed one of our campus police officers. Life on campus has been a little subdued for the last few days, unsurprisingly, and our thoughts are with the family of the fallen officer. It’s been a sad week.

Not to be insensitive or anything, life has been moving along despite this event, and I’ve finished up a great book called “The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly (2005), a novel that follows the life of a political prisoner who is being unjustly held in a horrible cell in Burma/Myanmar (depending on who you ask). It’s from the POV of the prisoner, and it details his day-by-day life in prison in solitary confinement (the cage of the title) and the people with whom he interacts.

It’s a great read, although the subject matter can be hard to take (prison rape, inhumane treatment, etc.). It’s actually written by an American woman who lived for two years on the border of Burma/Myanmar, and it’s quite amazing how she can lead the reader into the head of this political prisoner in a realistic manner. It’s clear that she has done her research with this.

Despite the harsh living conditions and inhumane treatment, the protagonist is a great example of human resilience, and there are some other patches of humanity that are allowed to shine through. Some of the other prisoners are not horrible people, there is a small boy orphan who lives at the prison as he has nowhere else to go, and there are a few others that come and go, but for the most part, it seemed to be a pretty dark place.

However, the prisoner in question (he who lives in the Lizard Cage) finds small things for which to be grateful – the lizards who climb down the walls from the outside skylight, the ant colony who travel through his space, and the one or two people who show him some small kindness in this unpleasant world.

However, Connelly has done a good job with making this a very readable book without glossing over the hardships of the characters. It’s a good balance and kudos should go to her.

I also read another book, but can’t remember what the title of that was to save my life. Unlike my typical slightly obsessive habit, I didn’t seem to write down the relevant details, but hey. Life goes on, my friends.

Then I started a NF read about Victorian times, but it was soooo badly written that I ended up not being to take it any more, so threw that one down. (It was a shame though, as the topic was perfect: the servants of Victoria? Yes please, but it was not to be.)

Now I’m enjoying a read of Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Victorian times? Check. Social history? Check. Uses some epistolary work? Check. Well written? Check, check, check. I’m enjoying it and am looking forward to reading some more of this over the weekend.

Hope life is good for you as well.

Lantana Lane – Eleanor Dark (1986)

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We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…

Picked off my much-neglected Virago collection bookshelf, I had absolutely no expectations for this novel, except that I wanted to read something off my own TBR. So, I had a very clean slate for this, and it ended up being a really good read. (By now, I should know that to be true for the vast majority of Virago titles.)

Set in a non-specified quite modern year in the countryside of Australia, this novel tells the stories and tales of a small group of inhabitants (called Anachronisms by the author, a perfect phrase) who live on (or just off) a dusty road called Lantana Lane. (Thus the title.) Lantana, if you’re not familiar with it, is a plant that grows quickly and widely. I didn’t know this, but I think Australians view this plant as a veracious tropical weed. In the U.S., I know that I’ve bought some from a nursery to plant in the garden as it’s one of those hard-to-kill plants… And amazingly, I haven’t killed one yet so perhaps it really is immortal. (See pic below.)

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Anyhow, as with my last few reads, I would describe this book as a tapestry book, in that you’re introduced to a community of individuals with one thing in common (in this case, location), and then as you learn about everyone, their stories get combined (similar to how threads get combined to create a tapestry). (I know – I thought of that metaphor all by myself. 😊)

Most of the characters are linked somehow with farming or the land, with the common crop being pineapples (or “pines” as they are called in the book). Though not well off with money, the tiny community mostly get on with each other, are cooperative and collaborative, and all pretty interesting characters. It’s a very rural set up, and although each of these characters commonly refers to the drudgery and poverty under which they suffer, there is a lot of good will and common sense at the same time.

Wow. That makes it sound like an Australian version of Lark Green, but these guys are a bit more meaty and edgy than those characters.

And so the book is structured around fairly short chapters, each covering a slice-of-life that happens to each of the characters (and thus to the community). It’s an earthy book, revolving around land and weather, and the neighbors are all very down-to-earth without crossing into cute. Dark is a strong writer, and despite not having a very clear image of what this folk actually look like, I ended up with pretty clear images of how I imagined each character to look, and I was pretty engaged with the narrative and what happened in their lives.

It’s also a surprisingly witty book, drily written and frequently made me smile with the writing which took me by surprise but which I loved. (The humor matches the climate: very dry.) It reminded me of Thomas Hardy in some ways, since both of these authors have used agricultural workers who are pretty isolated from other communities, but closely formed within their own. This is similar, also, in the ways that although these characters may not be very experienced in the ways of the world, they are wise about themselves and each other, so it’s not written as a mean poke at anyone or such.

This was a great read from an author with whom I was unfamiliar, and I highly recommend it. Good one. (A cursory search on-line for other reviews found it be a rather rare title to read. Is that true?)

So – here’s some news…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

General Catch-Up…

catch_upSo it’s been a busy few weeks, both at work and at home. Reading has taken a bit of a backseat role, and this is reflected in my book totals, but all is well. Stats are only something that I keep a vague eye on, and so it’s not something to stress about.

I did have a DNF the other day (Color by Victoria Finlay) – a non-fiction that looked as though it would be right up my alley: micro-fiction type covering the history of different colors; instead, for some reason, I could only get through 150 pages of this. I’m not sure exactly what it was that impacted my read of this title, but it did so there you go. 🙂 Off the TBR pile so that’s good news. It’s been there a while.

It seems that I have been reading more difficult books lately, so, thinking it would be good to have a break from all the problems of the world, I decided to pick up a fairly straightforward title by Anna Quindlen, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and am finding this an enjoyable read. It actually reads as smoothly as a hot knife through butter, and this is just what I’ve been craving. Sort of a palate cleanser, if you will.

Movies – seen some corkers lately. Highly recommend that you go see “The Big Sick” with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, a rom-com but this time it’s an intelligent and witty view of a relationship with some really big medicalThe-Big-Sick challenges. I laughed out loud so many times during this movie, and I can neither confirm nor deny that there may have been a tear at some point. Seriously, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.

(ETA: This is an unfortunate name for the film in England though. If you’re “sick” in UK English [at least when I was growing up there and in our family], the word “sick” is the name for actual physical vomit itself. If you’re not feeling very well in UK English, you might say “I’m feeling poorly” or similar, not “I’m sick”. What this title is actually saying is “The Big Puddle of Vomit” in UK-ese. Haha.)

The other night, Superhero and I watched Arrival with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner (you’ll know his face), and Forest Whitaker. It’s a light sci-fi film about how humans react when twelve pods of aliens arrive on earth. I really liked it because it was all about linguistics and language – how to communicate with a different species when there is no common vocabulary? – and Adams was great. Even if you’re not sure about watching sci-fi, this is much more than that, so I bet you’ll like it.

happy_valleyIn between reading and movies, we finished up the TV police series, Shetland (another really good series set in Scotland – subtitles might be needed), and now have started Happy Valley, a police series set up in Yorkshire. Quite dark in places, but still very good. It’s good to see some England as I’ve been wanting a fix of scenery.

Life is chugging along nicely. We’re gearing up to go to LA for a weekend trip to visit some family, and then a trip to Colorado in September with some friends. (Half of the group are doing a grueling trail run, while the other half (including me) will be strolling through the shops and having a cup of coffee at the finish line to meet the runners…

Speaking of LA, do you have any recommendations of things to see? We’re planning on seeing a taping of Bill Maher’s show, and, fingers crossed, a tour of the Stahl House, but that’s a bit iffy right now. Any other ideas?

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Stahl House in Los Angeles.

Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States – Héctor Tobar (2005)

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Part of a treasure trove discovered at an FOL book sale one year, I picked up Translation Nation up for any number of reasons: first (obvs) it looked really interesting; second, I live in Texas which will probably (if it’s not right now) be a majority-Latinx demographic state in the near future; third, I had noticed that I was reading too many white people authors (for me) and I wanted to add more diversity to the list,  and then finally, I wanted a really good solid non-fiction read about someone with a very different life experience….

Focused on looking at how life in the America of today is being changed by (and having an effect on) the Latinx experience, the book is split into four parts as a literary device to organize a lot of different perspectives and people. (Tobar has definitely done his homework in finding sources and varying points of view.) However, although this may have seemed a really good idea as a framework at the planning stage, it ended up being a rather obvious device on which to hang a bunch of disconnected topics.

So, this was an ok read, really. Started off really strong with really easy well written prose, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that it was more of a patchwork effort put together to form a book (more so than the book contents support the entirety of the work). However, despite the patchwork, the overall picture that he paints with his reporting is mostly fully realized and with plenty of detail.

Tobar is a well-respected journalist, and was part of the writing team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 LA riots, so he knows writing. And the actual writing wasn’t part of the issue – it was just that there wasn’t really quite enough to make this project a book in length and the padding wasn’t that well hidden.

But let me back up and give you the strengths: Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and so knows of what he speaks (in terms of being in the Latinx community). He’s a strong writer with strong opinions, and he had a lot of latitude and support to travel in support of this book for interviews et al. He meets and talks with a lot of Latinx folks across the U.S., and participates in immersive journalism when (among other things) he lives in a ramshackle trailer with other workers at a chicken plant as part of this research, so that piece was solid.

It’s also a positive take on things which was really good to see (especially when you compare the immigrant/fear rhetoric coming out of the administration at the moment), and it reflects a more optimistic worldview for this country of immigrants. It’s also clear in showing how much influence the Latinx community can (and does) have, some obvious and some more hidden… It’s a lot deeper than fish tacos, my friends.

So, it’s slightly frustrating when you know an author is capable of some great work (ref: Pulitzer Prize), and yet the final product doesn’t reflect that in some way, especially when you’re aware that there really wasn’t quite enough material there.

Gosh. It sounds as though I really disliked this book, and I didn’t for the majority of the read. It wasn’t until the end when I could see the whole picture that it wasn’t quite the awesome read I was hoping for. I think I was swayed by seeing the title on a junior level History college syllabus somewhere and thought that, due to that selection, it would be stronger.

If you are looking for titles about the Central American/US immigrant experience, I would point you towards the work of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004), Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border [NF 1993], perhaps, or his fictional Into the Beautiful North [2009])…) As you can probably surmise, I enjoy this guy’s work – it’s really solid.

For a different perspective via a well-written novel, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is an excellent read and contrasts the lives of two very different families – separate lives but the same goals and how does that play out? Truly a good read.

Onward and upward, my readerly friends.

Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

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Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Wanting to read something that I couldn’t put down this Memorial Day weekend, I pulled “Americanah” off the library shelf, Scary Big Book though it is, and settled down on our new comfortable couch. Four and a half hours later, I emerged at the end of the book having been immersed in the world of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they traverse the uneven terrain of love and adulthood.

I was aware that Ngozi Adichie was an excellent writer (see review of We Should All Be Feminists here), but it’s been a while since I’ve managed to select a book that I couldn’t put down, and it’s been even longer since I’ve have had a few hours to devote solidly to an awesome read. Both of those opportunities came when I took the day off from work for the three-day weekend, and I have to say that although I’m only half-way through the year right now, there is no doubt that this title will make the Top Ten List at the end of the year.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to have noticed this book. It’s been awarded honors from across the world for writing excellence, including the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, selected for the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the NYT Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK), and given the 2013 Heartland Award for Fiction by the Chicago Tribune. Even if the book hadn’t won all these awards, I would be writing the same gushing review so please don’t think that I’ve been swayed by all these accolades. They are completely and wholeheartedly deserved by Ngozi Adichie.

To the book itself: the plot follows the lives of two young Nigerian people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as their paths interweave and separate over the years and across geopolitical lines. Both grew up together in the same time and at the same secondary school, but Nigeria (at that time) was under military rule which meant that a lot of its citizens wanted to leave for elsewhere and other opportunities. Ifemelu departs for the U.S. to attend university, leaving Nigeria with the plan that Obinze will join her once his visa is approved.

However, the visa process takes much longer, and as Ifemelu moves through her college, she becomes a successful blogger on the intersection of race and life (from her perspective as a “Non-American Black”) whilst Obinze struggles to make a life in England as an undocumented immigrant. So there is the dichotomy of gender, there is the dichotomy of race, there is the comparison of life choices and the role of luck, and then there is the question of what constitutes success in each person’s life. The novel has a lot going on, but it’s all occurring underneath the surface because the writing of the story is so strong that the characters’ lives remain the focus for the reader. It’s a slow-burn novel which sucks you in as the pages turn, and once finished, the book stays in your mind for days after. (It’s that good.)

If you’d like to spend the next few days in the company of two smart and very normal young people who are trying to work out which paths to follow in life, this read will give that to you. It’s been so long since I’ve jumped in with both feet to a great fictional read and been transformed into the lives of these characters that I have to admit that this was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without resorting to hyperbole, I think that this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I kick myself that I haven’t picked it up before now. Do yourself a favor, and choose this title soon. I bet you’ll thank me later.