New arrivals at JOMP

I’ve had a few new titles turn up on the doorstep at Chez JOMP, so thought I’d let you see what they were. (I always try to be a good host. 🙂 )

(Note: Each description has been lifted from the Amazon page for each title.) 

Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and their Surprising Rise to Power – Anna Merlan. (NF)

A riveting tour through the landscape and meaning of modern conspiracy theories, exploring the causes and tenacity of this American malady, from Birthers to Pizzagate and beyond. (Hat tip to What’s Nonfiction? for bringing this title to the top for me.)

The Thrill of It All – Joseph O’Connor (F)

At college in 1980s Luton, Robbie Goulding, an Irish-born teenager, meets elusive Fran Mulvey, an orphaned Vietnamese refugee. Together they form a band. Joined by a cellist and her twin brother on drums, The Ships in the Nightset out to chase fame. But the story of this makeshift family is haunted by ghosts from the past. (Interestingly (for me), I happened to grow up pretty close to Luton and I must admit – there are not that many books written about this place. So I’m curious to read it and see what he has to say about it.)

The Secret Life of Cows – Rosamund Young (NF)

At her famous Kite’s Nest Farm in Worcestershire, England, the cows (as well as sheep, hens, and pigs) all roam free. They make their own choices about rearing, grazing, and housing. Left to be themselves, the cows exhibit temperaments and interests as diverse as our own. “Fat Hat” prefers men to women; “Chippy Minton” refuses to sleep with muddy legs and always reports to the barn for grooming before bed; “Jake” has a thing for sniffing the carbon monoxide fumes of the Land Rover exhaust pipe, and “Gemima” greets all humans with an angry shake of the head and is fiercely independent.

Perfect English Grammar – Grant Barrett (NF)

Language learners of all levels can turn to this easy-to-navigate grammar guide again and again for quick and authoritative information. From conjugating verbs to crafting sentences to developing your own style, Grant Barrett provides you with the tools and motivation to improve the way you communicate.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (F)

At its simplest, Anna Karenina is a love story. It is a portrait of a beautiful and intelligent woman whose passionate love for a handsome officer sweeps aside all other ties – to her marriage and to the network of relationships and moral values that bind the society around her. The love affair of Anna and Vronsky is played out alongside the developing romance of Kitty and Levin, and in the character of Levin, closely based on Tolstoy himself, the search for happiness takes on a deeper philosophical significance. (Thought this would be a good summer project.) 

Milkman – Anna Burns (F)

In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary known as the milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him―and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend―rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. Milkman is a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions, in a time when the wrong flag, wrong religion, or even a sunset can be subversive. Told with ferocious energy and sly, wicked humor, Milkman establishes Anna Burns as one of the most consequential voices of our day.

Inside the Kingdom – Robert Lacey (NF about Saudi Arabia)

Assesses the paradoxical nature of modern Saudi Arabia to explain the clash between contemporary technology and a powerful religious establishment grounded in thousand-year-old traditions, exploring events in recent history that have brought about current conflicts.

Plus – the annual summer read of the AP Style Manual. 🙂


Screen Time…

So, as sometimes happens, we’ve been sucked into a few really good TV series, mostly Netflix and all good. Not my typical fair, but as I’ve learned, different can be good. 


First up was the Netflix documentary series on the Formula One racing season. Called Formula 1: Drive to Survive, it chronicles one cut-throat season of Formula One racing by following eight of the 10 Formula One teams as they compete around the worldwide circuit. This was utterly fascinating and engrossing for me. 

I know. I am as surprised as you are at the level of interest this series created for me and the SuperHero. I’m not usually an avid follower of Formula One, had little knowledge of the sport and even less knowledge about the cars, but by following the documentary team as they shadow the different teams, the more that we learned about the drivers and the sport, the more interesting it became. 

(You may not know this, but I must have been a former Formula 1 driver in my past life at some point. If I happen to catch it on, I love watching it. I know, weird, but there you go.)

So, as the episodes pass, we as viewers were pulled into this elite world of professional very focused racing drivers and learned about the top teams and how they fare. I just loved it. Honestly, if you are interested in a fast-moving highly demanding sport with drivers with fight-to-win personalities, you’ll like this series. We got just sucked right in.

(AND – get this. I happened to be working out at the university rec center, when I noticed that one of the car license plates in the car park happened to be “HAAS-F1”. Haas is the name of the F1 racing teams who compete in the F1 Series. There’s only ten teams total. Small worlds.)

On a different topic (but still good), we’ve been caught up in the series called Hanna. IMDb calls it a cross between a high-concept thriller and a coming-of-age drama, and the plot revolves around the life of an unusual young woman raised in the forest by her father. The series tracks her journey to discover the truth about her life while avoiding a focused CIA agent out to kill her. 

Again, another out-of-the-box series for me, but this is also really riveting. Plus, she is a kick-ass young woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Can’t wait to see how this ends up… (She reminds me of Katniss or perhaps the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo character in some ways in terms of how tough she is.)

Speaking of women with unusual lives, we also blew through the PBS’ series of Mrs. Wilson, a three-part program from the BBC. As always, high production values and a story that just gets stranger and stranger by the minute. This is actually a true story inspired by the lead character’s real-life grandmother’s diary which makes it even more interesting. (The true story bit is so circular and spiral, that you wonder whether anything else can possibly happen – and then it does.) 

Protagonist Alison Wilson believes that she is happily married in 1960s London until her husband dies, and another woman arrives at her house claiming to be Alec’s wife. What the heck…? And are there any more of secret Alec-related families? Who was Alec really?

What is true? What is false? It’s hard to find out, but it’s another riveting story (based on fact), and now I’m interested in tracking down the original source material online somewhere. Honestly, this was another winner in the TV world.

My advice would be to binge-watch this so that you can keep the complex narrative arc sorted out in your head. Just saying…

And then, someone at work found a streaming live-cam of a kitten rescue placeso all week, we’ve been keeping an eye on this batch of four (maybe five?) kittens and their incredibly patient mother. So entertaining… 

Life has been pretty darned good lately. I hope you can say the same. 

Travel: The Civil Rights Movement of Memphis

Relating back to our Spring Break trip to Memphis:

We not only went there for Elvis and the other musical connections, but also because it is home to the National Civil Rights Museum and the historic Lorraine Motel, outside of which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a sentinel event in the history of civil rights in America. 

Although I’ve lived here in the U.S. for a long time now, I’m still continually surprised by how much life is impacted by racial issues in this country. I know that I shouldn’t be that surprised – after all, the U.S. has had a long, difficult and complicated history of race relations and TBH, England was also complicit in that trade, so it’s not as though England is above that. It just seems to be much more of a recent event that impacts ordinary everyday life, but perhaps that is just me who feels this way. (Very well could be.) 

So it was important to me to make time to visit and pay homage to the city which played an integral part of this movement, so off we trundled (via Uber) to the National Civil Rights Museum, a modest and rather unassuming building that is added to the original site of the Lorraine Motel (including the marked balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.) 

You do have to make an extra effort to get to this site, as it doesn’t seem to be very close to any of the other attractions, but I could be mistaken on that. (It just seemed quite a long drive in the Uber.)

It’s in part of the older section of Memphis with lots of red brick buildings and smaller roads, but despite this location, the area was busy with tourists. Not a whole ton of places to sit down and have a cup of coffee or anything, so might want to keep that in mind when you’re dropped off there. (I think there was a vending machine, but there was definitely a very limited selection if you need a respite and some munchies.) 

But we weren’t there to eat. We were there to pay our respects to a fallen civil rights icon, and so to be at the actual site of one of the most important civil rights events in the nation was very impressive. (We also happened to be visiting around the same date in the calendar only fifty years later.)

The Lorraine Motel’s exterior has been kept exactly the same as though time has stopped, and even includes period-appropriate cars that sit in the parking lot under the balcony and the rooms. There’s a huge permanent wreath in that location, and it’s really quite a place for awe and respect with a rather hushed and well-behaved crowd around it. It’s more of a hallowed ground than tourist haven, and generally, people seemed to appreciate that. (I was pretty impressed with this, to be honest.) 

Although you can’t actually go into the hotel room, you can visit the neighboring museum to learn more through interactive exhibits. Inside the museum, it’s not as big as I had expected but the exhibits and general curation were to a high professional standard. I rather get the impression that this museum is a labor of love from a small community group rather than a big museum association. That doesn’t dilute the message in any way, but may be one explanation for the size. I’m not sure. 

The message of the civil rights movement is conveyed through mostly displays and it can take as long (or as short) as you’d like as you are given time to consider your thoughts in relation to the exhibits. It’s a steady stream of visitors and I recommend that you don’t be in a big hurry when you visit here as there is a lot of moseying around (at least when I was there). Plus – school kid groups as well, so there’s quite high traffic. 

However, don’t let that put you off. The museum is worth visiting, and once you see the location of King’s murder and can put it into context with the rest of the civil rights history, it’s a powerful experience. 

So – that was a good and thought-provoking afternoon. 

We also visited Beale Street that day, an old wide street that has some really interesting history, but I think it’s more of a nightclub scene now than anything else. (Some interesting public art displays as well as one of the most curious general merchandise stores I’ve ever visited, but you might want to stay aware as we came across some rather rough-looking people as well.) 

So, our overall experience of Memphis was really good, and I really recommend a visit if you’re interested. What really elevated the trip was the fact that everywhere we went, we were met with kind and generous people. Honestly – it was the people who made the difference here. 

For our other Memphis shenanigans, check out this post.

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann (2016)

I am learning that “The New Yorker” journo, David Grann, is a consistently good writer which then makes a consistently good read. Honestly, Grann’s work is such sophisticated narrative nonfiction that you know you can trust the text for both impeccable grammar and accurate facts, all bundled up in a way that is just so enjoyable for me as the reader.

(Gushing words, right? Grann’s worth them. Unfortunately, he’s only published three NF books, so far (that I know about): this one, “The Lost City of Z,” and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” and so I only have one more read to go. I hope Grann’s busy working on something else. 🙂 )

To this particular title: Grann has done several years of painstaking detective work and reporting to uncover the truth about the “Reign of Terror” that was inflicted on the Osage tribe in Oklahoma at least during the 1920s and 1930s. (It may have lasted longer than that, but due to suspiciously shoddy record-keeping, it’s hard to say.) 

The story itself sounds as though someone has just invented it for a high-dollar movie. There are so many twists and turns within it and such a large group of nefarious and powerful people involved, that it’s hard to believe that it happened. But that’s what money will do to some people. 

This is an in-depth look at the clash between the First People Osages and the surrounding white community when an enormous oil field is discovered under the Osage’s reservation land. It’s also the story of a baby FBI just starting out and of what people will do for love and money. (Mostly money, in this case.)

The Osage story is a familiar and sad one: impacted by the Trail of Tears’ forced migration, the Osage tribe was forced to hand over its ancestral land to the U.S. government. However, unlike a lot of other less fortunate tribes, this tribe was able to keep ownership of the mineral field under their land. 

Oil means money (and a lot of it), and the Osage people’s wise legal agreement meant that the tribe were then the richest people per capita in the world. Combine the land grab with the oil boom and things get rather dicey. Add into that combination the heady mix of power and money… 

Grann adds to this story the beginning of the FBI, and then he leads the reader through this winding journey of how Hoover and the agency he heads overlap with the strangely large numbers of Osage tribal members who kept dying under suspicious conditions on the reservation. Money could protect them from many things, but not from a network of high-powered businessmen determined to get even richer.

So, this is about 300 pages of, as Grann describes it, “a chilling conspiracy” that in many ways is not over for the tribe. More than twenty-four Osage tribe members (and friends) were murdered around this time on the reservation, but written records are so sloppy and spread out across the country, that it’s hard to know the final count — there may be many more that are unaccounted for. 

it’s so compelling that I actually read this whole book in two days which is a direct reflection of Grann’s storytelling abilities.  There are a LOT of moving pieces and variables, but Grann’s mastery of his material means that he doles these pieces out in a logical and manageable way for the reader, but I must admit, it’s not a book that you can really snooze your way through. (That’s also another reason why I blasted my way through the book really quickly.)

This title is so worth the interweb hype that’s bubbling through many book blogs, and I can only add that this book is one that lives up to its reputation. Stellar storytelling, thorough reportage and great writing make this one of the best books that I’ve read in a long while. 

P.S. Just found out that there is a movie in the making. Cool.

ETA: And then there’s this: Perusing Wiki for more info about this topic, I came across the little nugget of info that the Osage Tribe referred to (white) Europeans as I’n Shta-Heh (or Heavy Eyebrows) because of their facial hair. 🙂

Trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico…

All calculations based on experience elsewhere, fail in New Mexico.

Lew Wallace, Territorial Governor, 1881.

The day after Christmas, the Superhero and I made a quick run to get out of town for a long weekend, and so we ended up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is one of our neighboring states. It also happened to be at the exact same time as what TV stations were calling “the biggest blizzard of the last 20 years”, but we had our new truck with 4×4 and we were looking forward to a bit of snowy adventure so off we set. 🙂

Santa Fe is at a higher altitude than where our home is, and there was an enormous (as wide as New Mexico) blue cloud on the radar. Due to the storm that was slowly plodding across the area, the drive was a bit of an adventure. In the end, the total time in the car was about nine hours which is almost double what the typical journey takes. Snow really slows you down.

Luckily, New Mexico is very good with its snow management so there were enough snow-ploughs to keep the roads mostly clear, but we were pretty grateful to be in the Superhero’s four-wheel drive truck. (There were so many cars who had slithered off the road and were waiting somewhat forlornly for a rescue truck. We would have stopped to help if anyone was in critical danger from cold or otherwise, but most of the cars that littered the roadsides were perfectly fine. Just stuck.) 

We had splashed out and booked up at La Fonda, one of the nicest hotels in the city, and although it was really only an overnight trip, the hotel made it more special than usual since it was pretty posh.

Santa Fe is the capital city of the state, and is an interesting place to visit, interesting for many reasons but for this trip, it was notable as it looked so different in the snow. 

The small city has an ordinance that all the buildings within a certain distance of the central town square have to abide by certain architectural standards and design, principally based on using adobe, so there is a pleasing symmetry to the streets as you walk around. It’s an arty community with citizenry from both ends of the income spectrum, but mostly wealthy. It’s a little bit like walking around a rich area such as Aspen, with lots of expensive art shops and restaurants all with the adobe architecture that reflects the area’s influence from the numerous First People’s tribes. 

It’s not a city that looks like any other that I’ve been to (by design), and when it’s snowing, the red sand of the adobe buildings looks very pretty against the falling snow flakes. Plus, since it was only a day or two after Christmas, a lot of the decorations were still up: lights in the trees around the main square, and a Santa Fe version of an adobe gingerbread house in the hotel’s lobby:

The hotel’s version of the classic Christmas gingerbread house… Adobe!

So, that was a fun trip (even with the snow!). The cold weather also meant that not many cars were on the roads, and though the road trip was almost doubled in terms of its typical travel time, we even had a long enough drive-time for us to listen to a complete audio book, which is a record for us. (It was a murder mystery by Mary Higgins Clark, but not sure which one. It was surprisingly good.)

It was great to get out of town for a break of sorts, and when we returned home, we still had another week or two before going back to work (which was nice).

So, since I haven’t said this yet: Happy new year! May you have peace and lots of good reading!

The main square in SF all decorated with colorful fairly lights…

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (1977)

So, I’d been busy with school and life and after looking at my recent book reading, realized that I really wanted to read just a straight-forward non-hard-hitting fiction. Having had pretty good success with Bradbury in the past (Dandelion Wind /(1957), Fahrenheit 451(1953) and Farewell Summer (2009)), I dropped by the library to pick up “The Martian Chronicles”.

Its publishing date is 1977, but as it’s a compilation of short (connected) stories inside, the individual pub dates for each story vary from 1946-1950. I actually had little idea of what this book was about or how it was structured, so went in with a clean plate. Since I wasn’t clear that this was actually a collection of connected short stories (if they can be called that), I was mightily confused with the timeline at first, but once I’d figured out that this is a series of stories that follow on from one another, I got it sorted out. But hell’s bells. I was muddled at first.

In case you’re like I was with no clear idea of this read, the title may clue you in: The Martian Chronicles. “Chronicles” to me suggests something of a newspaper, and once I knew that that was the book’s basic structure, the stories started to make much more sense.

Each chapter/story is set on Mars as it becomes colonized by humans escaping from an Earth which has had a catastrophic event that has made it unlivable for humans.  The stories are in chronological order starting with the date of January 1999 and finishing with the date of October 2026, and since it was written way back in the mid-1940s, it’s fascinating to see what someone back then was forecasting for this possible future – now our immediate past and present. (See? It does get a bit confusing.)

However, by halfway through the read, I’d got the hang of things and I’d recommend that if you choose this title, you read it in one or two long sittings (instead of picking it up and putting it down). I tried that strategy of picking-up-and-putting-down, but once I realized that I was going to be able to follow the book much more easily if I just got reading in big chunks, the whole experience turned around and I really enjoyed the book.

Ray Bradbury with his hands out, circa 1980. (Photo by Tribune/Getty Images)

It’s interesting seeing how someone in the 1940s thought the future of the U.S. would be in 60-80 years’ time (which means that Bradbury’s future is actually now our present).

The book starts with a rocket landing on Mars in 1999, but it’s an early adventure for the space agency on earth, and so it’s more exploratory than anything. As the chronology continues apace, the years that each chapter represents are pretty close together until about the year 2005 when the story then jumps ahead to how Mars is in 2026.

Of course, since it’s written by an American, it’s an American-focused story but doesn’t seem to suffer from that and it’s definitely par for that time in history.

Bradbury tracks how Mars is gradually colonized over the years, and how this new society progresses, along with its troubling interactions with the native Mars people. As background, America in the 1940s was not yet in the big Space Race, there was some excitement and glamor about the whole thing but it was still rather vague. WWII was not that long ago for many people and their families, and so Bradbury’s America is very much a white-people-with-little-white-fences type of society and men are mostly in charge, although kudos to Bradbury for including one or two stories which do deal with race-relations issues.

Also, alongside this historical background, astronomers had been fascinated with Mars since the 19th century, and early space-watchers had reported the red planet had straight lines on it, visible through their early telescopes. This gave rise to the idea that Mars had been colonized already and that the straight lines were actually man-made canals moving water from one area of the planet to another. Thus, it wasn’t such a huge leap to think that perhaps beings were already there.

As an aside, slightly random but interesting all the same: Bradbury has credited this book as being influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919 – yuck) and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939 – great read but no link), in terms of how they affected the novel’s actual structure and playing with time. (I can’t see any influence in this read, but perhaps others can. I didn’t get on very well with Anderson when I read him though. Maybe in their episodic structures?) 

Additionally, Bradbury credits Edgar Rice Burrough’s work (especially the Tarzan comic books)… (And as before, I’m having difficulty seeing the connection between this story and the Tarzan ones, but perhaps others may be more erudite than me…)

It’s not a particularly cheerful book, but it ended up being a great read, and I found it so interesting to see the 1940s’ prediction of future life in space, with both its accuracies and inaccuracies. Good one.

Candle smelling…

Don’t fret. All I’m referring to with this title is that I came across some candles at Target the other day, and became intrigued by the creativity of the names of their scents… 

And one I think most of people would like: 

But the question remains: What do these ideas actually smell like?

The only answer that I could come up was “they smell like candles”. 🙂 .

A grade of A* for creativity on the part of the copywriters though!

Snow time like the present…

So school is winding down, and my class had their final exam last Sunday! This reschedule happened (for the first time in 30 years) at our university because our region ended up having about 10+ inches of snow on Saturday. Our West Texas town, usually out of its depth with more than an inch of precipitation, handled itself really well, but in the interest of student safety, administration cancelled all the final exams that were originally scheduled for Sat, and moved them to Sunday. Slight chaos for the on-line exam, but now all done. :- 

Here’s the 10 inches of snow that arrived on Saturday. (Very unusual for our semi-arid town.)

So, Sunday was mostly working with students, technical issues, and other academic-related stuff, but it all sorted itself out in the end. I think the probs were mostly from the fact that almost 36,000 students were all trying to take their exams on-line at the same time via one software application. Sigh.

We spent the remainder of the day with naps (naturally!), reading (more to come), choosing my next book (more to come), and supervising the normally-outside slightly feral cat who was allowed inside all day. (Huge treat for her.)

Temps got down to 10 degrees (when 32 is freezing), so we felt guilty that she was outside huddling under the car when we were only a few feet away in warm comfort. Needless to say, she didn’t need that much persuading and so spent a very snuggly day inside. (It’s sunny and 50s now, so she’s back outside – much to her disappointment.) 

One excellent piece of news: I found a new bookshop the other day. It’s called 2nd and Charles,  and seems to be a mix of new and secondhand. Plus it has jigsaws. Speaking of puzzles: My lovely mum and my sis sent me jigsaw puzzles for my birthday the other day, so I’m trying to choose which one to start when the school break eventually comes. (I know. I’m a nerd. But I embrace my nerd-dom. 🙂 )

Screen-wise, we’re currently enmeshed in the series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a female stand-up comic starting her career back in the 1950s. It’s a mix of drama, serious issues, and comedy, and we’re lovin’ it. 

Finished up and delivered some kids’ Christmas stockings. Each year, via the Salvation Army, the community can choose to fill an individual huge red stocking with toys et al. for a kid who otherwise might have not much of a Christmas. I’ve been doing this for years now, and it’s just plain fun to gather up potential stocking ingredients throughout the year so I’m not sure who benefits the most in this set-up: me or the kids. Happily, I think it’s both of us! 🙂 

And then next weekend, I think we’re planning on putting up the Christmas decorations. We don’t go crazy with it, but it is fun to put up what we do have. (And then, I must admit, it’s fun to take everything down when it’s all said and done with.) 

How’s life in your world going on? I do hope it’s going smoothly and all is well. 🙂