Trawling my TBR shelves the other day, I realized that I have quite a few autobiographies and biographies about various people so thought I would gather these titles together in case you might be interested. One caveat: these are TBR which means that I haven’t read them just yet. They look good though!
A Girl Named Zippy – Haven Kimmel. This was LOL hilarious when I read it a few years back…
I’m not quite sure where I found this title (probably on one of my blog-reading adventures) but it sounded very good and my library had a copy so I brought it home.
From Amazon: Beating with the pulse of a long-withheld confession and peppered with lilting patois, Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to love whomever she chooses, bravely putting herself first. But to survive as an undocumented immigrant, Patsy is forced to work as a nanny, while back in Jamaica her daughter, Tru, ironically struggles to understand why she was left behind. Greeted with international critical acclaim from readers who, at last, saw themselves represented in Patsy, this astonishing novel “fills a literary void with compassion, complexity and tenderness” (Joshunda Sanders, Time), offering up a vital portrait of the chasms between selfhood and motherhood, the American dream and reality.
“But di weirdest t’ing ‘bout life is dat it’s only understood backward. Yuh neva know what’s at di end ah dis tunnel waitin fah you, sweetheart. Now come get dressed. We got life to live an’ rent to pay.” (p. 204)
This was a fast read at first and I really enjoyed the first two-thirds but then… I’m not sure what happened. The last third of the book seemed to be a different quality of writing (and not in a good way). It became sooo over-written in several spots that it became irritating to read which is a shame because the plot was good. I’d been sucked into the narrative of the characters but the questionable writing kicked me out very quickly.
What do I mean by “bad” writing? Let me count the ways:
“She weeps finally, finally with the rage of a woman touching her earlobe for the feel of an heirloom earring and discovering it gone, not knowing when and where it fell, and powerless at this point to find it.”
I know, right? A long and rambling non sequitur…
Or how about this example:
“Patsy pauses, the words bundled in her belly, as lifeless as a still newborn.”
Doesn’t it actually hurt your writing soul to read these sentences? Why would you use this comparison when there has been no talk of babies or infants around this?
The only (very slight) mention of anything linked with the topic of “baby” is “belly” in the phrase that comes right before this one and this image is such a stark negative one for what it’s being used to describe…
AND this book was stuffed with a really heavy Caribbean dialect which was continuously tricky to follow. I can typically do dialect for most books but this one was really hard to decipher. There were times when I had no idea what the characters were yapping on about.
The book, on the whole, had a strong basic narrative plot but my goodness, the last third of it was so overwritten that I almost stopped there. I soldiered on though because (a) I am pointlessly stubborn about some things and (b) it became quite entertaining to see what other writing nuggets I was going to read.
So, in terms of a plot and the actual story, this was a good read. In terms of writing, ummm…..
After having stumbled upon an old copy of the 1946 publication of Pearl S. Buck’s “Pavilion of Women” (no “The”), I was intrigued. I might have already read this but it’s been many moons ago and so I picked this up to read last week.
Wow. Great read. It’s follows Madame Wu and how, on her 40th birthday, she informs everyone (including her husband) that now their physical (i.e. s*x) is over, she wants him to find a concubine to replace her in that way. This decision upends her whole family and it will never be the same again.
What’s unusual about this is it’s a reversal of the typical gender roles fo this time: typically, it’s the husband who wants the concubine set-up and the wife is objecting. (For Madame Wu to turn this on its head is really notable, especially for the readers 60+ years ago.)
Additionally, it’s also more typical that the husband handle the logistics of this set-up; however, since the husband is reluctant to do this arrangement, Buck turns that on its head and makes Madame Wu be the person who handles all these details. In doing so, Buck completely reverses societal norms and mores. It’s really fascinating.
So, the narrative follows Madame Wu’s efforts to arrange this for her husband. Once it is done, Madame Wu proves her independence and relishes her new-found spare time and energy to read books in her room, knowing that her husband will be occupied with the concubine. It’s a clever way of showing how strong Madame Wu and how she takes charge of her life.
I would also argue that this plot is a reflection of the change in society, both in the Western world and that of China, especially in terms of gender roles and expectations in the rather rigid Chinese culture at that time.
The process is all going smoothly when Madame Wu meets a visiting foreigner (probably in a missionary capacity) called Brother John who has been hired to teach a foreign language to Madame Wu’s youngest son to improve his marriageability. Brother John not opens door to learning for this son but also for Madame Wu and her life is never going to be the same.
This is a book that reads really smoothly and I thoroughly enjoyed this. It also gives you a lot to think about once you’ve turned that final page as well, and I love that. Highly recommended.
(If you have to read this in HS and thought “meh!”, you might want to give it another read now once some years pass. You’re a whole new person, after all, so wouldn’t it make sense for it to be a different read from you were 17? :-))
The only squirmy part of this was Pearl Buck is a white person who is telling this very-Chinese story. Is it right that Buck takes the POVs of her characters and views them through the lens of a non-white country? Or is that coopting something that isn’t hers to own?
And yet, at the time of the book’s release, this received rave reviews across the book-critic world and, after having lived in China for 40 years, Buck knows her stuff about the culture and she presents the country and its citizens in a positive and respectful manner. However, is it ok for her, as a privileged white woman, to write as a Chinese peasant and tell his story?
Total number of pages read: 2.739 pages (av. 304).
Fiction/Non-Fiction: 6 fiction / 3 non-fiction.
Diversity: 1 BIPOC. 3 books by women.
Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 5 library books, 3 owned books and 0 e-books. One borrowed book.
Plans for February 2021 include picking up a classic or two (but which one? That’s the question. I’m thinking either Dickens or Zola but I’ll see what jumps out.) I also want to include more POC writing. Continue this pace of reading and perhaps read more from my own TBR as opposed to those titles from the library.
Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 6 library books, 1 owned books and 0 e-books.
Plans for July 2020 include a month of teaching online Summer School at the university, prepping their lectures and grading work… Apart from that, lots of reading, jigsaw puzzles and hanging out. Temperatures are very hot outside for the most part, so it’s a pretty indoor life right now. 😉
Crikey. This was one heckuva read about an amazing Black woman. It’s also an excellent nonfiction book with cool modern graphics integrated in amongst its well-written text. (I know. Lots of praise but this volume deserves every ounce of that.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Harriet Tubman, get thee to at least the Wikipedia page and read about this true American hero. (No hyperbole there.) Her life story just blew me away. 🙂
So – not only is this the life story of an astonishingly brave woman, this title presents her history (or herstory) in a modern and extremely graphically-pleasing format. And — it’s well-written. As you can perhaps surmise, this was an informative and wonderful read for me, and I highly recommend it for you.
If you’re not familiar with Tubman (and disregarded my advice in the second paragraph to go and read the Wiki page on her), you’re missing out. Tubman may have been small in stature (five feet tall) but holy cow – she had the biggest and bravest heart and used that courage to save hundreds of people from slavery.
Not only was she a leader in the historical Underground Railway system for escaped slaves, but she was also a hardcore soldier, a brilliant spy, a suffragette for the vote AND an advocate for old people. And – she had brain surgery without anesthetic. Phew. Can you see why I am amazed by this fabulous woman?
Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard professor of history at Rutgers in New Jersey, has done a great job here of relating Tubman’s life and endless achievements, all done in an energetic and graphically pleasing presentation which made this a pure pleasure to read.
It’s written in a conversational tone (despite Armstrong Dunbar’s academic status), but this tone comes across as friendly and informative, similar to watching an approachable historical documentary onscreen but while retaining the sheen of academic rigor to the text.
A powerful and mesmerizing read about one of the most impressive historical figures I have ever come across. I’m astonished that Tubman is not more well known for her life and times – she should be. This will be definitely be one of the top reads for 2020. Amazing.
(Curiously – Tubman was scheduled to be honored on the design of the $20 dollar bill [to replace racist President Andrew Jackson] but true to form, the Orange Goblin has put the kibosh on that for now. See this CNN article for the (disgusting) details. Sigh.)
You’re still here? Shouldn’t you be at the library checking this book out? Or buying it online? Why – yes. You should. 😉
Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.)
So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}
Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting.
Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print.
Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939.
(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.)
Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family.
Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her.
This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern.
Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape.
(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.
In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.)
It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true.
It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace.
Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!
*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??
Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those.
My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election.
I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time.
Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open.
I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:
Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉
Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok.
Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!)
The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy.
My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country.
Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.
After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer.
Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.
*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.
I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)
The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think).
I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…
The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights…
Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win.
(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)
The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.
And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!
Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.
Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)
At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)
As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.
African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)
Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).
She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.
Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.
However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).
This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.
(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))