Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 195

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Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day eight years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

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Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

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Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Amy Krause Rosenthal (2016)

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Having read and totally enjoyed (nay, adored) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s early book title, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life , I knew that the odds were that her new pub was also going to be of the same vein: experimental, drily funny, and wonderful – and so it was.

Goodreads describes it thus: “a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human”, and I would argue that it’s that and a lot more. It’s really truly one of my favorite books so far this year. (Admittedly, the year is still young, but still….)

If you’ve read any of Krouse Rosenthal’s work, you’ll know that she is an artist who is comfortable pushing the edges of literature and the idea of books. Her work is not difficult to read, but there’s little linearity and very little of the traditional format that a reader would expect in a more traditional publication. And it’s this experimentation and playing with the format that makes Krouse Rosenthal’s work so much to read (at least it is for me). I really admire Krouse Rosenthal, and I just know that if we knew each other, we’d be close friends (in a completely non-weird non-freaky manner).

(Maybe I’ll call Krouse Rosenthal “AKR” in future paragraphs. It’s shorter. Besides, we’re friends…)

One of the first things that I noticed when I picked up this title is that it’s a very interactive experience. AKR encourages readers to text (as in phone text) her number and join in the reading experience that way, so it’s not just you sitting down and reading a book. It’s you reading a book, joining hundreds of other people at the same time in a social experience that is happening real-time. (It sounds like a pain, but it’s not at all as you can see if you visit her accompanying website right here.

The title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, refers to a number of different things (which you’ll learn about if you read this), but it’s structured in a similar manner as a timetable in middle school with chapter headings titled “Social Sciences”, “History”, “Music” etc., just as a middle school student would face during his or her typical day. Under each chapter heading are pages and topics that relate to that theme in some way. For example, under “Music”, one comment is “You don’t see very many chubby orchestra conductors.” (It’s much much better than that example portrays. I promise.)

There is loads of white space, but it’s more of a space to breathe than negative space. The paragraphs can be short and interestingly formatted, and it’s not chronological at all as subjects are grouped by topic rather than a strict timeline. It’s as though you are inside AKR’s head as she remembers things – very similar to perhaps you (and certainly I) remember things. Just jumping around from one thing to the next with perhaps only a tenuous connection (if anything at all) between each separate thought.

I’m not at all certain that I’m doing this work justice, but if there is only one thing that you extract from this paltry review, it’s that you should go ahead and read it. Honestly. It’s that good.

ETA 03/24/2016: Just learned that Amy Krause Rosenthal died from cancer this week. 😦

The Tortilla Curtain – T. C. Boyle (1995)

book377A reread from a few years back, this was actually just as good a read (if not better) the second time around. Boyle is an American writer who takes contemporary news issues (in this case, the issue of immigration) and then writes a narrative around that issue, usually raising a dilemma where there is no clear right and wrong. His plot lines are also unpredictable so I can never really guess the endings and that I love. That, combined with excellent writing skills and a large vocabulary, make Boyle a joy to read most of the time, so if you haven’t picked up one of his many novels or short stories, I highly recommend them. They’re almost a guaranteed good read.

This novel, The Tortilla Curtain, tells the story of two couples whose lives accidentally overlap with each other leading to a long chain of events which completely disrupt their lives. A young liberal California couple live in a mostly white community up in the hills just outside LA. Their lives are mostly smoothly run without any major hiccups until one day, the husband is driving his car and accidentally smashes into a Mexican immigrant who is here (along with his wife) as an undocumented citizen and who has no choice but to live in a rudimentary campsite down in the canyon that butts up against the backyard of the white couple. Such a collision leads to serious ramifications for both families, but Boyle writes the story in such a way that there is no obvious right or wrong. No one really does anything morally wrong, and both the couples just want similar goals: to live in a nice home and go to work.

It’s an intriguing premise that compares the Haves and the Have-Nots in today’s world. Through no fault of their own, the Mexican undocumented couple are striving for the same things that the privileged white couple are looking for, but when you are at rock bottom with few resources, how can you ever get out of your circumstances (especially if you can only live in the shadows)?

I could say more, but to tell you would be to ruin the plot and I don’t want to do that for you. Just know that this contemporary novel is a riveting read wherever you may stand on the touchy issue of immigration. It’s especially poignant when you realize how closely the two couples live, geographically speaking, and yet they are in worlds far away from each other. Boyle’s characters represent both sides of the immigration issue, and they are both written with equal parts compassion and criticism, both complicated with no clear solutions. It’s a fascinating read, especially in the light of the political chatter of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (ridiculous).

By showing the reader the rationale behind the actions of the characters, you can see the slippery slope that people may be on with regard to how they feel about things, especially when events are not theoretical but happen in your own backyard. Does that change how you view things?

An excellent read from T. C. Boyle and highly recommended.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 132

 

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Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 133: Fabric yellow rose.

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day six years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)