Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Fiction/NF Pairing:

With Week 1 of Nonfiction November now completed, we’re on to Week 2. The task: to pair up a NF title with a fiction title. 

Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:

The 1936 edition of the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (the actual book itself, not the movie based on it) and Native Son, the 1940 novel written by Richard Wright. 

The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.

Let’s look a little more…

Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him). 

The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)… 

But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} ) 

As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road. 

So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads. 

Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside. 

For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given. 

War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.

You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs.  (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)

So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow? 

So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while.  It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time. 

When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale? 

If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today. 

Many thanks to the hosts:

  • I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t speak to that just now. Perhaps others have?

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):

Guest Post: Nova Dog and Bones the Cat.

(L) Nova Dog. (R) Bones the Cat.

We have adopted a new cat who was living in a bad situation. Called Bones (since she was sooo very thin and malnourished), she is slowly learning to trust us all and since she’s been having a healthier diet, she seems to be feeling much better and is starting to canter around the house and coming for regular snuggles. (Medically speaking, it was rather touch-and-go with Bones for a week or two. But phew. She’s pulling through now.)

Nova Dog (still bouncy at aged 3) is learning to respect boundaries (kitty claws and teeth along with hissing can be effective teaching tools), and as you can see above, Bones has laid claim to the large dog bed, leaving the floor for Nova Dog. Nova is not that upset by this turn of events, since she rarely uses the dog bed, but I think the principle of the thing is interesting. The tiny cat has the biggest bed. Seems rather Queen Victoria-ish to me. 🙂

(Cowboy Cat prefers to stay out of the squabbles. She’s snoozing in the other room.)

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. 

Fergus has a guest post…

This is Fergus the cat. She’s actually a “she” but some little kids around the corner named her when she was a kitten and that’s the name she has. She’s very passionate about everything: if you can feel strongly about something, she will. Also, if there is any kind of disagreement amongst the kitties, you can double-dog guarantee that Fergus is in the mix somewhere. Very sweet though, and typically very dirty from rolling in the dirt. Thus: Filthy Fergus. 🙂

I took this pic when I was waiting for Fergus to jump down from the bonnet/hood of the car so I could start the engine and get to work. Clearly, it’s not something she wants at this very moment. 🙂