The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough (1977)

Chatting with a friend about books (of course), she happened to mention the title of this 1977 best-selling multi-generational Australian novel that tracks the Cleary family as their lives play out at a fictional sheep station in the Outback and one that I had somehow missed during my teenaged years.

At this point (close to the end of the semester), I’m more or less brain-dead so I was looking for a non-complicated fairly straight-forward knife-through-butter read, and thus: The Thorn Birds was selected.

And, despite my rather low expectations for the quality of this read, it ended up being a very enjoyable multi-generational romp across this family’s history in Australia. (And if I’m honest, it was actually MUCH better than I had anticipated, so that’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover.)

Spanning the years 1915-1969 and crossing the world in its narrative arc, McCullough masterfully keeps control of the huge number of characters and events that make up this plot, and it’s written in such a way that despite this huge spread of variables, it wasn’t confusing at all. So – kudos should go to the author for that.

And even though the book is a complete and total beach read, it also happens to be very well written (apart from the odd printing typo here and there) and so that added to the overall experience as well. Oh, and it was nearly unputdownable at the same time. Really – the whole thing took me by surprise.

So briefly, the narrative follows the lives and times of Paddy Clearly, a new Irish immigrant who’s landed in Australia as a farm worker. It’s Paddy and his (many) descendants who form the core of the character line-up in the story, and although I was a bit concerned about keeping everybody straight at the beginning, there was very little confusion as to who was doing what when to whom, a fact that really impressed me as I turned the last page.

So, if you’re in the market for a good old-fashioned straight-forward and compelling beach read this summer, this title would be a good choice for you. It’s easily available (thus cheap and easy to get a copy), it’s well written, and if you’re like me, you’ll gradually become more and more invested in how the lives of several generations of the Cleary family turn out.

This was a fun read, completely outside my usual selection but good nevertheless. Perfect for the almost-summer-vacation brain that I have at the moment. 🙂

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.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.) 

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. 🙂

March 2019 reading review…

March passed by in a flash and that speed-of-light passing was reflected in my reading totals for the month. At first, I thought this low number was quite strange, but when I look back at other past March reading totals since I started teaching, I can see it’s historically this way. I think I forget just how busy and occupying teaching can be sometimes. Plus – there were Spring Break travels!

Still, no worries. 

The reads for March 2019 included:

And wow. No review blog posts. Gasp. Never mind. I’m going to do a recap post with some reviewlettes in a bit to get me back up to speed… 

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in March 20195
  • Total number of pages read 1,219 pages (av. 244). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for April include continuing the POC author/topic focus, finishing up a read of a teaching skills book, and placing my focus back on my own TBR. 

Trip to Memphis, Tennessee….

Quote

“I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we’re going to Graceland.” 

— Paul Simon, 1986.

As part of Spring Break last month, I decided to meet my visiting English mum in Memphis, a musical mecca of sorts as well as being very influential in the history of U.S. Civil Rights over the years. 

A photo of my lovely old mum standing in front of large photo of young Elvis.
Here’s my lovely mum standing in front of a pic of a lovely young Elvis. 🙂

My main impetus was to visit Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and declared National Historic Landmark. Interestingly, it’s also the second-most visited house in the U.S., after the White House (current inhabitant notwithstanding) with more than 650,000 visitors each year. 

Photo of entry ticket to Graceland.

The city is also quite central to the places from where each of us were traveling, so there were multiple reasons for going there. Mostly, though, if I am honest, I wanted to see the Elvis stuff. I’m not this huge Elvis SuperFan or anything, but I did grow up as a kid seeing his movies and hearing his songs on the radio. The only Elvis I could see in my mind was him in his later days when he was a tad overweight and wearing his white rhinestone jumpsuit get-up so I was very interested in learning more details. 

One of the King’s white concert jumpsuits. The whole museum was set up very professionally for both the Elvis SuperFan and for others who were perhaps just mildly curious.

We started off with the mansion tour (the Graceland place), and although filled with visitors, it wasn’t too busy or cramped and visitors are kept moving for most of the time. (You can hang out if you’d like, but most people tended to keep moving once they’d got enough.)

Curiously, the actual home is very modest considering that Elvis was one of the biggest rock n roll stars on the planet, but the more I learned about him, the more I realized that this modesty wasn’t all that surprising for the man.

(And compared with the overkill commercial consumption of celebrities (and certain politicians) of today, it’s all rather understated. His mum was in charge of the interior decorations which I think was just sweet, btw.)

Graceland’s living room just to the right of the front door. Elvis was very proud of his custom settee since it would sit his whole team when they came to visit, but on the whole, the house is pretty modest.

The general feel of the place is that of a shrine more than a museum. So many of the people who toured while we were there were almost holy in their approach to seeing this house, and most people tended to whisper their comments to each other, similar as one does in other rarified environments.

I thought that this home was especially meaningful when I learned how the early years of Elvis were impacted by poverty and other social ills. For Elvis to live in such a house must have seemed like a dream to them all at times.

Once we’d been through the mansion and had had enough there, we went across the road (via shuttle) and landed in the large lot that houses the rest of Elvis’ things and Elvis memorabilia (all of which are included in the admission price). It’s all really very well done, and although not cheap, it’s thoroughly worth the rather spendy ticket price to see this side of Elvis.

Also, on this side of the street are the food and drink places with loads of Elvis-titled dishes etc. (The food place was called Gladys, in tribute to his mum whose cooking Elvis loved…Yes. You could have a fried sandwich just like Elvis liked.) Lots of yummy young-Elvis pics to look at as well. 😉

(I think what helped to make this Elvis visit such a good experience was having done my homework prior to arrival, so I was at least familiar with some of his life.)

Highly recommend doing that. I think prepping for a travel trip like this one by reading ahead is like seeing the difference between normal TV and HD. You suddenly see all these details that you didn’t know were there all the time.

Memphis, of course, is home to more than just Elvis. Other places related to the industry include Staxx Records and the small but very influential Sun Studio where loads of musicians have recorded their music. Both Sun Studios and Staxx are quite a way from Graceland, but not crazy far. Just take an Uber and it’ll work out. It worked out about $12/one way. (Energy-wise, we were both done after doing Graceland, so we went back to the hotel for a snooze and something to eat. zzzzz. 🙂

(Part Two of this Memphis trip report to come in a day or two….)

Here’s the title I read to prep for the trip: Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times – Glen Jeannsome, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolovic (2011).


Currently…

Image result for spring

Phew. It’s been a busy few weeks, but I’m finally starting to reduce my to-do list to a more manageable size. I had a great Spring Break, but a full week out of the office can do chaos to the schedule sometimes. (It was very worth it though. Just takes a few days to climb out of the pile.) 

To do a brief catch-up, I thought I’d use a format that other bloggers have used and which I rather like as well…

Currently:  I’ve just been to a breakfast meeting with a potential new faculty member who seems to be very nice. Plus – breakfast was yummy. Plus – I finally got to got to know some other faculty who are in my department, but who have very different schedules than I have so we didn’t know each other very well. We do now!

Reading: I’m a little bit behind in my book reviews, but I have had some crazy-good reads lately. Reviews to come. I’m now in the middle of a non-fiction anthology, “Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Reader” (Charles d’Ambrosio, editor). A mixed bag for sure, but a good chunk of the articles have been excellent. (But there are typos scattered throughout. Why are there typos? Grr.) 

Watching: In the middle of the latest season of “True Detective” (a little intense but very good), along with whichever Seinfeld episode we can find at the moment of watching. Over Spring Break, my mum and I binge-watched a lot of HGTV which we both happen to really enjoy. 🙂

Listening: Just found a good remake of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” song, this one by Hardy, so that’s on quite-a-lot-of-repeat right now. 

Planning: The weekend ahead of us. Right now, it’s a choice between a movie of some type or a local play. We’ll see how this pans out. Either way (or something completely different) is fine.

Credit for post idea goes to Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness.