The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

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Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

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Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

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Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

Bye Bye Summer…

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Well, somehow the end of summer has arrived, and I am now immersed in the annual ritual of going back to school. I had a great summer, and now I’m looking forward to a lovely autumn. My favorite month – bliss.

It also means that (hopefully) we are on the downside of moving to cooler temperatures, but it will still be a while yet. It was close to 100 degrees outside yesterday, so I’m very thankful that I happen to work in an office with air conditioning.

August turned out to be a busy and fun month. I finished up teaching the writing class I was handling as a summer class, and then I met up with my lovely mum and sister up in Toronto (one of my favorite cities now). Had great fun and walked our little legs off. Now I’m trying to find another time to visit all the other things that we didn’t get to see in our last visit… Did love Toronto though.

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Niagara Falls (from the Canadian side of things.)

After that trip, we had time to wash our clothes and do a jigsaw puzzle with my mum who stayed with me a few days post-Toronto. Good fun, as always.

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My lovely mum loves jigsaws as much as I do…

Then, the Superhero and I went for a long weekend to sit on one of the lovely beaches in Mexico. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort so it was worry-free, apart from deciding what we wanted to eat and drink at intervals! (Very nice.)

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Pretty nice view… 🙂

Now it’s back to school. I have two classes I’m teaching now: both writing-intensive (which means grading-intensive for me), but as I love words and writing, I’m excited about getting to know this batch of college students. Lots of smiling faces right now. 🙂

Reading – I’ve been doing that, but I’ll save that for another post. Just wanted to pop in here and let you know that I’m alive. I’ve just been out there living a busy life!

Hope your summers were stupendous as well.

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Us playing with the mirrors on top of the   CN Tower. 

Catch-Up…

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It’s been a while since there’s been a general catch-up post on life, and so here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to.

The Summer of Liz continues at a really enjoyable pace. The first summer session at the university where I work was filled with a demanding (but rewarding) completion of a writing class. I was taking it for professional development, and it was really well taught which meant that I learned a lot from it. It was a lot of work, so I was a bit relieved when it finished. (Glad I did it though.)

This second summer session is keeping me pretty occupado, but this time I’m on the other side of the desk and teaching which I really enjoy. (It was fun, I must admit, taking the part of a student for a few weeks. I’ll definitely repeat that experience again at some point.)

So the next weeks will be busy in the mornings with teaching, prepping for class, and grading, and then that leaves the afternoons mostly free to play. I do have a work-related conference to attend in Dallas this weekend, but I love this event so I’m looking forward to it. I always learn a lot when I go and feel energized when I return. Lucky me, I know.

Since, as I mentioned yesterday, my mum is coming out to visit, I’ve been preparing for a trip we’re doing (with my sister as well), this one to take us to Toronto. I’ve never been to Canada, so I’m pretty psyched to see how life is up there.

One thing that I know for certain is that it will be cooler than West Texas, thank goodness. I checked the weather in Toronto the other day, and it was a rather nice high 70s. (High 70s is high for some places, I know, but when we’ve been averaging 100 degrees most day, hanging out in such an amenable climate will be lovely, especially when I’m with the fam.)

(Quick question: Is Toronto humid? I’ll have to find out.)

We’re up north for a few days, then my mum goes with my sister to visit in CA, and then she comes to stay with me here. Then, when she leaves Texas to go home, I have a couple of days to hang out, and then the SuperHero and I are off down south to sit on a beach in Mexico for a bit. The goal: to do not much except enjoy the place where we’re staying and chill out. (Oh, and a bit of reading, no doubt.)

And, then, when we return from Mexico, it’ll be almost time for back to school for the fall semester, and then it’s back to business again.

I’m starting to plan some of my books to read when I’m traveling, and in Canada, I’m going to visit a bookstore (or five) with the aim of buying some titles by indigenous authors. If you have any titles/authors that you recommend, I’m starting a list so please let me know your thoughts.

In the meantime, it’s teaching, grading, hanging out, and going to the gym. Not a bad way to live at all.  🙂

Cold Weather Reads for the Hot Season (at least here in Texas!)

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The temperatures here in West Texas are creeping up and have hit the typical numbers now, which means hot, hot, and more hot. I’m not the biggest fan of these never-ending hot and dry days, but luckily for me, I don’t have to work in the cotton fields or live in a house without air-conditioning. 🙂

It still doesn’t take the fact away that the days here can get really warm, and so I thought it might help keep us cool if I put together a reading list of books that feature cold weather in some way. (Cold and wet would be even better! You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the girl, as they say.)

So, here are a few suggested titles from both the blog and my TBR that might do the trick for cooling down your internal thermometer:

Antarctica would be a good place to start, so how about a read of the riveting adventure of Captain Scott and his fatal expedition at the turn of the twentieth century? Apsley Cherry-Garrard has The Worst Journey in the World, a two-volume diary that details almost every step of the way and is an adventure classic that is hard to put down. You can almost shiver in sympathy at these poor men who follow an almost despotic leader across iceburgs with completely inadequate equipment and training. (Volume l and Volume II). Another angle would the biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard called simply Cherry (TBR).

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If your goal is general survival, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (TBR) as it looks like it has some useful tips based on research, but if you’d rather look at a slightly warmer (and more civilized) trip across some wilderness, you could try Mary Bosanquet’s Saddlebags to Suitcases, where she details her time crossing some of Canada on horseback back in the 1930’s/1940’s. It’s still cool, but more summertime cool.

If you’re interested in history and the pioneer life (since it can get pretty cold in a log cabin or sod house), Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West looks good (TBR), and I know that Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993) is excellent.

If you’d prefer to look at pioneer things through a  family saga perspective, you could always read the classic, Giants of the Earth by O.E. Rolvagg (1927) which has some cold parts of it. (Clearly, since the story is placed on the northern plains of the U.S. in a log cabin…)

Speaking of living a domestic life for pioneers, another good read (this time a how-to book) is The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher Stowe and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), an excellent guide for first-time explorers which tells you how to survive both the hot and the cold if you’re building a new life and a log cabin on the plains.

db035d32e6865b0673e873457270f2c5Another good pioneer perspective (including a difficult winter or two), this time from a very cheerful and optimistic newcomer, is The Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart (1914) or you could return to old faithfuls such as The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940). Or even the NF book, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin (2004) (TBR) which tells the tale of how a group of children got lost during a blizzard in America’s heartland back in the 1880’s.

Speaking of bleak weather, if you’d like to travel with a man and a boy during the aftermath of a tremendous event, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as unrelenting a read as the bad weather and bad luck for these characters. (That’s a toughie to read, IMHO.)

On the other hand, if your plans are more “travel-around-the-world-with-servants” style, and you need some non-fiction to know *exactly* what to pack, try the Victorian travel book, The Art of Travel by Francis Galton (1854) . (So. Much. Stuff. But that’s ok as you’re not the one carrying it. :-} )

DQWqwPVXkAAFMF5Perhaps your plans include a journey via the Himalayas, so you could have an enjoyable journey with Michael Palin when he went there: Himalaya (2004) is a book about his travels there one year.

Another true adventure book that gets a bit cold is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (TBR) which follows the truly amazing journey of seven prisoners of war who escape from a Soviet labor camp and travel across Siberia, China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India in 1941. (Also the related film tells their story and is called “The Long Way Back” (2010) if you’re more of a film buff.)

And if you’d rather take a look at the Russian side of the world, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968) is a riveting quick read about how one Polish family survives as prisoners in Siberia around the start of WWII.

If you’d like to get away from almost everything, I’ve heard it gets a bit cold out in space, so you could always refer to Chris Hadfield’s lovely book about his life as an astronaut, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life (2013)… (or Mary Roach’s pretty hilarious Packing for Mars…)

For a rather different take on life on English moors, try The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959) , a collection of short stories by one of the more recognizable names of The Angry Young Men movement in mid-century England.

Or you could venture out onto the cold and rainy moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)  or perhaps another of the many Sherlock Holmes titles. (They usually involve some cold places of one kind or another.)

More cold-weather crime is via Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, a collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. And don’t forget Dame Agatha Christie who has some cold reads, Murder on the Orient Express being one of the more obvious choices.

You might prefer to go more on the domestic route with some dreary weather, so perhaps The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1954) or a quick WWII domestic read of 1939’s Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struthers). You know what? The gritty Irish trilogy that starts with The Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien, 1962) or maybe the trilogy that starts with The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks (also published in the 1960s) might hit the spot since that’s rather a cold book (re: temperature) at times. There’s also a sequel to that as well: The Backward Shadow (1970) and that’s followed by the final title, Two is Lonely (TBR). (These titles are also known as the “Jane Graham” series…) Just sayin’. Sometimes you want dreary, amiright?

For a snowy and slightly scary story, don’t forget that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)  has some chilly moments in it as well, as does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896).

Peter Hessler has written several NFs about life in rural China, so perhaps start with River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze about his time teaching in a small rural town, although there are several titles from which to choose. It has some cold scenes in it.

Similar (in that both places can be cold) but different would be a read of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010) of life for the typical person in North Korea. Brr. Hungry, poor and cold? No thank you.

If you’re not quite sure where exactly you’d like to go to get cooler, any of the prestigious America’s Best… volumes can take you almost anywhere you’d like, with travel writing collected and edited by a variety of authors (including Bill Bryson (2000) , Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), William Vollman (2012)   etc.)  These collections typically contain a mix of climates as part of their writing selections (although they can sometimes lack diversity in the author selections)…

Finally, for the more science-y folks, you could learn more about the amazing snowflake and see some stunning photography, in The Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrechrt and Patricia Rasmussen (2003).  This title even makes some parts of physics comprehensible and fascinating… (And that’s me saying that from the perspective of dropping physics and chemistry when I was 12 years old. If I can understand it from my non-science background, it’s probable that you will as well. Plus – great photography.)

So, there you go. Some wintery reads for you if you’re stuck with hot temperatures. Hope that helps (or at least guides the way for) you if you’re sweltering…!

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Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)

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(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?

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Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Daughters – Paule Marshall (1991)

I can’t help it. I really adore Paule Marshall’s work, and so I’m lucky that she has a good backlist of other titles to read and enjoy. Perhaps when I’ve finished that last read, I’ll just cycle back through them to enjoy them again. 🙂

Paule Marshall was an American author with immigrant parents from Barbados, so it’s easy to understand why several of her characters in the titles in her oevre straddle the two different worlds.

In this title, Daughters, her protagonist, Ursa, has spent her first fourteen formative years growing up on the fictional island nation of Triunion, and then is sent to the U.S. to continue her education there. Her father and US-born mother had met in the US earlier and then the couple had moved back to Triunion where her father had a career in governmental politics.

This political position influences everything and everyone throughout the novel, and just as a career based on election results can be unstable, Ursa remains conflicted about who she is: a serious research analyst or a father’s rock-solid support for his never-ending elections… Or can she be both?

The title, Daughters, also reflects the scope of the plot accurately as well as Ursa is not the only daughter who is involved in the narrative. Her mother, Estelle, is a daughter who grew up in a different country from where she lives, and Ursa’s life overlaps with other women who are daughters.

It’s also arguable that the idea of the fictional island of Trunion could also be a young daughter in terms of the nation only having earned its independence from England in the not-so-far past. So – who can a daughter be when she wants to be herself?

The story starts with Ursa returning to her apartment in New York after having just had an abortion at a local clinic. As she’s buttoning up and going home, she worries whether the doctor really completed the procedure and perhaps left a piece of a medical device inside her. (Again, this idea of children….)

Ursa’s really concerned about whether the fetus is really gone and this concern continues through the narrative – how much of her is all hers? It’s a question of identity that threads through this novel for most of its characters, and as the reader follows these characters chapter by chapter, so Ursa goes on a journey of discovery of herself, her life choices, and the people who surround her.

Ursa is currently unemployed but anxiously waiting to hear whether a grant proposal has been funded by a private foundation. It’s a project that continues from her earlier work about studying a small city in New Jersey and how its heavily African-American population is faring in terms of economic prosperity and other QOL issues. (Interestingly, it could be argued that the people of this town are also undergoing their own journeys, along with the town itself.)

With her unemployment period overlapping with her father’s upcoming political election, Ursa is torn. Her pattern of the past is that she flies down to Triunion to support her political parent at each of the elections that occur, and up until now, she has been content to play that role but she’s now wanting to break away from that.

As Ursa gets older, she is realizing that perhaps her father, always worshipped by most people (including her), isn’t the perfect person that she had thought he was. Age brings distance and clarity to some issues, and Ursa’s removal from Triunion has given her the necessary space to evaluate her perspective and it is this new view that is uncomfortable for her.

Ursa is an independent twentieth century woman, unattached for the most part (except for current boyfriend although this is not a deep attachment for her). Without a regular job and with questions about her future, she feels uncomfortably unmoored about her life and her future.

In contrast, she relies heavily on her best friend, Viney, for advice and consolation and a steadying influence and Marshall uses the instability of the lead character to compare and balance out the more anchored life of Viney, who has roots in the city. She has a son, no partner, and has just bought a house in Brooklyn so, to Ursa, it seems as though she herself is the one who is behind the curve and who needs to choose and then commit to how her life will pan out.

How will this play out for her in the end? That’s the big question.

Loved this read just as I’ve loved Marshall’s other titles so far (Praisesong for the Widow, Merle and Other Stories,  and Brown Girl, Brownstones).

A good solid read that kept me thinking way after I’d finished the book.