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.) 

Swabbing the Decks: Recently Read Reviewlettes

Lots of being busy has led to a lack of posts here on the blog, and I apologize for that, dear reader. I’m planning on this being a catch-up post of sorts so that I can get back onto schedule. 

So I’ve been reading for sures – I seem to have retrieved my reading mojo after having it slip out of view in March, and luckily, the titles that I’ve been choosing have been really good. (It’s nice when things align.) 

I had noticed that I had slipped off the wagon for reading from my own TBR over the last few weeks, so pulled an old Oprah read from the shelves: “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” by Pearl Cleage (1993). 

It’s been a while since I’ve chosen a title that reads like a “hot knife through butter”, so searching for that experience and hoping that this wasn’t a misery novel (as can be Oprah’s wont with her books), I found this to be a fun and optimistic read. It’s also particularly noteworthy as it was published back in 1993 and features an HIV-positive woman as the protagonist. 

Why was it noteworthy in 1993? Because the AIDS pandemic was in full swing, a mix of homophobia and denial across the U.S. (and my city) was common, and I was an AIDS educator in a medium-sized Bible Belt community (ref: homophobia and denial [for some groups] mentioned above).

Oprah choosing this title was a great way to reach an audience who wouldn’t automatically be informed about the disease. It was cleverly wrapped up in a cheerful novel featuring women, and it was Queen Oprah who chose it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at that time, I can see that she made a brave choice.

This is a homecoming-type novel, where the protagonist goes back to her small hometown after leaving Atlanta, the “Black Mecca” as the author calls it. Typical of a homecoming, she reconnects with old friends, makes new friends, and then makes new plans for the rest of her life. 

It’s well written, it’s easy to digest, it’s a fun read. Glad I reread this one, as I didn’t remember a thing about it from the first time. Plus – it was really interesting to place it in the context of history. Good one.

Pulling another read from the TBR pile, I chose “Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Anthology,” edited by Charles d’Ambrosio. As I was looking for some longform nonfiction and/or essays to read, this fit the bill completely for me, and I whipped through it. 

As is typical for most anthologies, there were some hits and misses but overall, it was a good read. What was a minor irritation, though, were the typos spread quite liberally throughout the pages. I kept checking to see if it was an advance copy (or similar), but no. It was the final proof and just had typos. Grr. 

Moving on from the typo situation, d’Ambrosio had selected some good essays and/or narrative nonfiction and I managed to glean some author names to search for in the future. Plus, in the end, the title did have more good reads than bad ones, so I consider that a win. Plus – off the TBR pile! 

During Spring Break, my mum had brought me an old Virago copy of “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West (which was a new read for me). Expecting a rather prickly reading experience, this one ended up being really enjoyable and I actually read it twice, back to back, just to look at how the narrative arc was structured since it was done so well. I’ll be looking for some more by Sackville-West and her gang in the future.

Now, the end of the semester is in sight for both students and teachers, Spring time is here in our area of the country, and things are turning green again. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees this week and I’ve just found out that I’m probably going to go to a work conference in Vancouver.

Life is really good. I hope you can say the same. 

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.

Victoria: A Life – A.N. Wilson (2014)

Having been immersed in watching the PBS series, Victoria, this Spring, I became pretty interested in learning about this particular monarch and so, prowling my TBR shelves (go me!) I came across this thick volume about Victoria and dug right on in. 

First of all, I think that this detailed biography will only check the boxes for someone who is REALLY interested in Victoria. It goes into a lot of detail about the politics of the time, and so if you’re not really into that, I’m not sure that this will be the read for you. I had to really concentrate to stay alert through some of these parts, so I’m thinking other people may have the same problem. (There may or may not have been some skimming at times.)

Having said that though, Wilson has done a good (and thorough) job of giving the reader the details of Victoria’s life and times, so now (after 642 pages), I feel confident in having a much more thorough overview of Victorian times and their tubby little queen. 🙂

Wilson reviews the entirety of Victoria’s life, from birth to death, and generally speaking, it was a great read if you’re wanting to learn more about this enigmatic monarch. Wilson is a scholar and a biographer, but in spite of this, he still manages to sprinkle humor and wit throughout the book which brings a sparkle to an otherwise pretty dry read.

To be honest, the only really dry bits were towards the middle of the book (and her life) when Albert dies and when Victoria chooses to remove herself from public life and events for approximately 30 years or so. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) She does, eventually, get back into things, but it takes quite a while for her to do this, and in the meantime, peeps are pretty mad at her, enough so there were rumblings of England turning into a republic (sans Queen). Her return was rather in the nick of time.

Wilson also addresses the significant others in Victoria’s life post-Albert, including John Brown and the Munshi. (See below for links to other related reads you might be interested in.)

Queen Victoria (on horse) with her “friend” (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more…. ) John Brown
up in Balmoral in Scotland.

I can’t blame them, really, as Victoria was hiding in her various palaces and only doing the minimum duties while she nursed her never-ending grief for Albert. (She did manage to throw up a lot of expensive statues and memorials for Albert throughout the country, but actual useful monarchical work? Not so much.) 

Despite this avoidance of public life, Wilson does show that Victoria was keeping up with the paperwork related to parliamentary life and diplomacy overseas, but it was very in-the-background for many years. (If you’ve watched the Victoria series, she goes through quite a lot of advisers and prime ministers over the years, and despite all the rules about the monarch and the government being separate and equal, Victoria liked to have her little hand in things of governance at times which raised some eyebrows. Anyway, this book rather sorted out that complicated revolving door for me a little more, so that was helpful.)

So, I think that this biography is more for the Victoria Super Fan than merely a casual observer, and even then, the middle bit about the political landscape was slightly dry (shall we say?)

However, this was more than made up by all the details about how closely the British royal family was tied up with mainland European royal families through marriage (mostly), and it clearly lays out how much planning went to determine who should get married to whom and when, and to see how her nine children fare (or don’t as the case may be). (And Bertie fares as well as you would expect…)

Thank goodness for a family tree at the start of the book. Some people change names when they’re put on the throne so it can get a tad confusing in places. 

As mentioned, Wilson is a master biographer who goes into great detail about the life and times of this miniature monarch. (She really was not very tall.) I know that I have another volume by Wilson about the Victorians in general waiting on the TBR shelves so feel comfortable looking forward to that read at some time. 

Other related reads on the blog: