NF November Week 4: NF Favorites

Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ Shelf Aware): We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

For me to select a nonfiction book to read, I think it’s mostly determined by the topic, first of all. If I am remotely curious about whatever the subject of the book may be, then you can probably bet that I’ll take a second closer look at the volume. 

(And you know – this can happen even if I’m not that taken by the subject, but then it’s totally dependent on how the back-cover blurb + the first page (+ any notable reviews) read. If one (or more) or a combination of all those hit the target and still sound interesting (and well-written), then I’ll be even more interested than otherwise. And sometimes it’s none of those things! 😉 ) 

But then again, let me add this caveat that sometimes it’s a topic that I didn’t know that I was curious about and yet I STILL finish a book on it. For example, who would have thought that one of the most interesting books that comes to mind from the last few years was one that examines the phenomenon of the Baby Beanie craze that took over the country a few years back? 

(The book is called The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonette (2015).)

I didn’t collect Baby Beanies; didn’t own any Beanie Babies; hadn’t even thought about Beanie Babies for YEARS and yet, heard about this title, picked it up and found it to be fascinating. (And I’m still thinking about it years later!) 

I’m not even sure how I tracked down this title in the first place, but I would bet that I read about it on someone else’s blog and then found it at the library. But who would know that this title even existed without those? I wouldn’t have. 

So perhaps it’s a combination of all those factors listed earlier (the blurb + the first page + notable reviews + non-prof review of someone I trust re: reading)? 

If anyone had ever asked me if I would be interested in learning the details and history of the Beanie Babies, my hand would not have been raised to say yes, and yet, it was actually one of my most intriguing and memorable reads that I can remember in recent memory. Go figure. 

On a slightly different note, another NF book that blew my mind and sent me down tons of other rabbit holes since I read it in 2011: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2011) by Adam Hochschild

An amazingly well-written and well-organized read about the worldwide slave trade history and the efforts of a small group of men to end slavery in the British Empire (with ripples that crossed the globe afterwards), this was perhaps part of the catalyst that brought to my mind my ongoing interest in the African-American experience. 

(I’m really interested in the experiences of other disenfranchised groups, so I’ll be learning more about them at some point.This just happened to be first.)

A finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in NonFiction, this title rather opened the door and pulled me in to educate me on the history of the slave trade, which, in turn, led me to become very interested in race, diversity, bias and the other buzzwords flowing across campuses right now. 

Learning more about this part of history then pushed me to start reading slave memoirs and autobiographies (such as 12 Years a Slave and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or perhaps Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth…) 

Which then led me on to more recent history such as the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation/resegregation, the Great Migration, and right on up until we reach the various discussions about race and POC topics that make up part of today’s conversation. 

(I would also say that another influence on this diversity interest would be the current U.S. administration and its disdain for anyone who’s not a rich white man. But that could be a whole other conversation, couldn’t it?) 

In fact, I became so interested in this subject that it was one of the big reasons that I traveled to Memphis last Spring to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement there, to visit the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, and to walk down Beale Street. (Beale Street is a real-life place but is also the title of a book: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (pub. 1974), plus it’s been released as a remake as a movie…) 

(Another reason for the Memphis visit was to visit Graceland and other Elvis-related places. Interestingly, Elvis’ life and music were very influenced by the African-American experience, but again, that’s a whole other rabbit hole…) 

Back to the topic at hand: which other qualities do I look for in a good NF read? Well, I need to find the topic appealing in some way. I’m also learning that I’d like it to be really well-written, well-organized, quite academic in how its research is cited and with a long bibliography at the end. (More books! Give me more!)

And if you could also throw in an occasional mention of some dry sense of humor – witty, clever without being condescending – then I’ll definitely read it. 

And — I usually try to find a topic that’s pretty different from whatever I’ve just been reading about in my previous NF read, just to keep things interesting (unless I’m on a kick on one area in particular, in which case I might read more of the same).

(I’m very consistent in being inconsistent. 🙂 )

So – what about you? Let me know what you think. I am having a lot of fun visiting lots of other similar-minded people’s blogs! 

If you’re curious what other slightly-random topic reads I’ve read about, you might like to check the following reviews: 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Controlled Chaos – Lucy Knisley (2019)

As an ongoing reading fan of Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel/sequential art work, I was happy to discover that she had recently released an update to her autobiographical books with the latest news about her getting pregnant and then successfully having that offspring.

What I really appreciate about Knisley is that she has no pretensions about being anything but normal – her perspective on her own life is refreshingly down-to-earth and, unusually for a graphic novel of this genre, she is not writing to heal a personal or familial trauma (apart from this getting-pregnant thing).

Plus, Knisley seems to be a very curious person (similar to how I am) and so you never quite now what to expect for inclusion in her graphic novels. (Question: is a graphic novel still a graphic “novel” if it’s true and autobiographical? Or does it then become a “graphic autobiography”? …)

At this point in her life, Knisley has now been married for a few years and she and her husband, John, decide that now is the time to start a family. It’s this topic around which the book revolves, from the overall preparation for it (she researches in much the same over-the-top-but-fascinating-to-me levels) and her work is as honest as she can be in how much she tells the reader about herself and about her life. (When I have finished one of her books, I feel as though I’ve just been having an enjoyable conversation with a good friend at a coffee shop or similar. She’s that relatable.)

So, in this particular volume, Knisley not only tracks her various attempts to get pregnant (not as easy as it sounds) while also relating a connected and wide-ranging litany of background info about women’s reproductive health, including its history and some of the science behind it as well as recounting the more personal side of things. It’s an effective mix of personal and impersonal and it’s a recipe that really works.

This blend of personal perspectives and more objective information also enables the reader to feel invested in Knisley’s reproductive life – when they have difficulty getting (and staying) pregnant, my heart went out to them at how heart-broken they were. How could something so “easy” as getting pregnant become so difficult for these two people (and others)? It’s actually a riveting story and one that I read through all in one go. (I had to know how things concluded in the end!)

Knisley presents scientific facts and debunks superstitions in a respectful manner, really saving the emotional approach for her own personal side of life, and so this makes her an effective and credible teacher for this information, some of which was new to me (and may be for you too). In fact, I really think Knisley would be a good writer for a sequential art-take on some harder science topics, if she ever decides to travel in that direction. I’d read that work, for certain. (Are you reading this, Lucy? You know. In all your spare time! Ha.)

So, much like her other reads, Knisley’s latest volume is an excellent addition to her ever-growing oeuvre. I hope the fact that she now has a toddler doesn’t signal the end of her graphic-novel days, but fortunately, there was a hint at the end of this book that there may be more to come: “It all ends right now, with a new beginning…”

Fingers crossed that Knisley continues to refreshingly document those early days of motherhood that lay ahead of her!

Other (highly recommended) Lucy Knisley reads include the following. Your best bet would be to start at the beginning and read them chronologically:

Nonfiction November Week 3: Expertise

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject. 

I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree? 

Enjoy!

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years): 

AFRICAN NF:

(Now, I know this is NF November, but sometimes I think that fiction reads can really complement some NF reading so here are some recommendations that you might try…) 

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

COMPLETED AFRICA FICTION:

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN NON-FICTION:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Stalvey
  • Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the new First Lady – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram (eds)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell-Cole
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America  – Charisse Jones
  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America – Nicholas Lemann
  • Human Cargo – Matthew Crampton
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris
  • We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang
  • In the Land of Jim Crow – Ray Sprigle (1949 – earlier version of “Black Like Me”)
  • Writing from the Underground Railway – William Still (ed.) 

TBR AFRICAN (AND OTHER COUNTRIES’) NON-FICTION:

  • They Poured Fire on Us: The Story of Three Lost Boys from the Sudan – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945 – Stephen Bourne
  • My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face his Country, his Tribe and his Conscience – Rian Malan
  • A Walk around the West Indies – Hunter Davies 
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Everisto
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin DiAngelo

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

TBR AFRICAN FICTION:

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F)

FOR FUTURE READING:

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

October 2019 Reading Review

That was a pretty fun month, reading- and life-wise. Outstanding was the play that we saw at the university (Black Girl, Interrupted) and watching the BBC-TV series, “The Durrells in Corfu.” 

  • Total books read: 12 (including 1 DNF)
  • Total pages read:   2664 pp. (av. 242 pp.)
  • NF: 4 (36% of total)      
  • F: 7 (64% of total)
  • TBR: 6 (50% of total read). 
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 55%.
  • Library: 5 (including 1 ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 7 (58% of total).
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 6 females + 0 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 1 (but probably going to pick it up again after a space of time)
  • Oldest title: 1883 (A Book on Medical Discourses…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 344 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 132 pp.

Here’s what I read in October:

Plus (because I am a complete nerd) this jigsaw puzzle:

November plans? Not really. I am very open to whatever comes my way and I’m happy to keep jogging along in this particular lane. I might need to rein in the book purchases though. (With the caveat that there is a December book and jigsaw puzzle sale on the cards…) :-}

Oh, and join in a bit for NonFiction November...!

General Catch-Up – October 2019

Autumn has finally arrived here in my region of the world. The temps have been cooling down significantly – even enough for us to put the flannel sheets on the bed. (I’d forgotten how delicious these feel to sleep between: it’s like sleeping in clouds. Sigh. Bliss.) I’m wearing socks more regularly during the day and even had to pull on a coat last week. I’m loving it all.

There are some Octobers when I’m just pulled back into one more read of “Dracula,” the 1897 classic by Irish writer Bram Stoker. (For a previous review, see here and here.) My typical experience is that I really enjoy the whole experience, even if it’s not the first time of reading it – I’m up to about five times now… And now I think it’s time to give it a break.

It’s got all the same great ingredients: epistolary, scary-but-not-too-scary, familiar storyline but, for some reason, this year’s read dragged for me which signals that perhaps I need a break. It’s been fun, Bram, but I’m gonna to put you aside for a while so I can get your “special” back. No hard feelings. You’re still awesome. I’ll still come back to you. Just not for a while. (And if you’d like to see a review of an earlier version of Dracula-like creatures, try The Vampire by John Polidori (1819).)

In other news: we went to a really good play over the weekend. Called “Black Girl, Interrupted”, it was written by Iyanisha Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at our university here, and was stupendous. Seriously. It was an excellent play-going experience and was completely professionally run. The play is based on the real-life rape and murder of a black female soldier in the Iraq conflict and how the U.S. Army covered it up as a suicide. (The drama is fictionalized from there, but the actual basis of the plot is true.) So – phew. Hard topic but again, an excellent experience. If this play comes to your area, I highly recommend it.

I’ve been reading but have had some titles recently which have been good, but for some reason, haven’t had a blog post about them. One, especially, deserves its own post but for time reasons, this mention will have to do. “The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (F) was a fast and thoughtful YA read, epistolary (as the title implies) and about a young teenager who goes against the cultural mores of his tribe when he decides to go to a high school “off rez”. A sensitive and provocative read about the importance of fitting in balanced with being true to yourself. I bet high schoolers love this read. (Maybe not. They might be more enamored of “Twilight” or playing on TikTok or similar…:-} )

Another read (although this was not half as good) was a quick peruse through “The Well-Dressed Lady’s Pocket Guide” by Karen Homer (2013), who has written for Vogue and other fashion mags. Fairly ok, but didn’t really have that much helpful information in terms of wardrobe, but a pretty ok foundation overall. I’m trying to make more use of my current clothes, especially with our cooler temperatures, and was rather hoping that this guide would help with that. It was actually more of a brief historical overlook of fashion, which was ok – just not what I had been looking for/hoping for.

In the in-between times, I’ve been sucked into the flow of doing another jigsaw puzzle – I’m addicted to these things and time just disappears when I’m doing them sometimes. This one (on the right) is a redo of one my mum and I attempted a couple of years ago on one of her visits, but we had run out of time to finish it. I’m determined to finish this sucker now. 🙂

And now it’s almost November. Thanksgiving is around the corner (wow) and then, I saw Christmas stuff in Target yesterday…

And I found a big stash of Twiglets half-price (below) whilst I visited World Market. (They are typically very hard to find, locally, so this stash will need to last quite some time. In theory.) Life is good.

Nonfiction November Week 1: The reading so far…

Intro by What’s Nonfiction?:

Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!

This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)

What has been your favorite NF read so far this year?
In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)

What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year?
Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.) 

This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.

That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!

Which NF book have I recommended the most this year?
Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!

What am I hoping to get out of NF November?

I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?

I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!

ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

Aya: The Secrets Come Out – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Ouberie (2009)

In this, the third volume of an ongoing series about Aya, the story continues with this young woman (now in her early 20s?) in Yop City on the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. 

If you’re a regular reader of JOMP, you may recall that I’ve been an ongoing fan of Abouet and Oubrerie’s graphic series: for reference, have a look at reviews of Volume 1 (Aya) and Volume II (Aya of Yop City).

This volume continues Aya’s (auto-?) biography of life in Yop City, a middle-sized community where the protagonist and her friends all live, and this edition resumes the ongoing pattern of showing how perhaps “more typical” African middle-class families may live. 

What I really appreciate about this graphic novel series is that it shows how very “normal” (in Western eyes) life can be for folks who live in this part of Africa: how they are not dealing with what is shown on TV as typical (starving children and armed rebels impacting the stability of the country, as examples). 

Aya and her community face similar problems as comparable American women (for example, there are worries about her future career, she’s concerned with fashion and beauty, self-esteem troubles etc. and her friends go about their lives with patterns similar to those of American women of the same age). 

Marguerite Abouet
Marguerite Abouet

Interestingly, at the same time as showing these cultural overlaps, Abouet and Oubrerie also include situations that are more specific to this region of the world: one of their fathers wants to have a second bride while a male relative of Aya’s is facing issues related to being gay in a historically homophobic environment. 

So, as with the previous volumes, it’s a great mix of issues, each of which adds further to the overall narrative of helping western readers see that African nations (and their peoples) are more similar to these readers than they are different.

The art is effective and adds to the story, the actual narrative keeps you interested and although you’d would need to read the previous volumes to keep up with all the characters, it’s a good read. I really appreciated the extras that the authors had included as well, especially the family trees for Aya and her friends. (I was constantly going back and forth to remind myself who was who and how they fit in to her community – it did get a little confusing in places, but that might have been my monkey mind at the time.) 

I recommend this series if you’re interested in learning about other people, if you’re interested in intersectionality, if you’re interested in the world in general… I think I was most appreciative of the counter-narrative of the more-publicized message of African countries being full of unrest and “third-world problems”. There’s no denying that some do, but there are also those whose citizens have more overlap with their readers than they may realize. 

This would be a great series to have in a HS library to show younger readers how people may live in a world that is getting smaller and yet bigger at the same time. 

A Book on Medical Discourses in Two Parts – Rebecca Crumpler, M.D. (1883)

My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)

Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…

(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)

Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.

Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very courageous and determined she was:

  • 1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
  • 1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
  • 1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
  • 1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)

But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the medical college.)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, doctress.

So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!

Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American populations as well…)

It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:

Baby health advice (under 5s):

One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂

All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “  (Chapter 5)

If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat, Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t give the baby “soot tea”, by any means.

Saffron tea is really crocus tea?  And was popular for baby’s poop problems?

Don’t give infants a “little weak toddy” to “bring up wind and make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may “inculcate a desire for tippling in many of our weak-minded youth”.

Later on: watch out if giving your baby any alcohol: it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”  

And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)

And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.

And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them” – the habit needs to “vanish like dew before the noonday sun” …

Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).

If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom

Teething and not wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.

Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…

Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…

If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…

If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)

Reading for kids is also dangerous:
Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?

For a breast-feeding mother:

If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get hold…” !!

(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)

If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being hungry).

Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”…  But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.

Do try to avoid cholera if you can:

There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation – it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive (or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children (and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…

Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)

Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)

And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic, it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread cholera.

And who’s responsible for all this?…

Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.

Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)

(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)

Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that women “appear to shrink from any responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.

She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the weather.’’

Advice for women’s health in general:

Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren, have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).

Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)

Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.

Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.

(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…” Huh.

Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…

Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines (especially those that contract or depress muscles): “may cause suffocation and death at any moment.”

Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork, gaseous vegetables, and anything that depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should help.

Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.

Fascinating stuff!

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.