Swabbing the decks…

Well, I apologize for that unintended slightly-longer-than-I thought break there. Life has gone a little awry (just as it probably has for you all as well), and it’s taken me a little bit to get my bearings back. Our university classes all had to be moved online in a remarkably short amount of time, and it seems that I have spent most of the last couple of weeks either online in workshops learning how to do this effectively or messing around with the software needed to do it. 

However, I feel more comfortable with the software now and have a stronger idea of just how to make this transition work for both the students’ academic experience and my own personal one. I’ve learned to keep things as simple as possible and we’re all taking it day by day. 

Like an awful lot of others out there in book-blogging land, I found it hard to concentrate on reading for a little while, but this is coming back to me now. Thank goodness. 

Anyway, I thought I would make this post more of a catch-up post than anything and then I can move onto getting back into the swing of things. 

So – to the reading. I really enjoy Cathy746’s blog which focuses on reading from Ireland, and when I learned that she would be running February as “Read Ireland” month, I really wanted to join in with that. I toddled off to the TBR shelves and read the following as a tribute to the Emerald Isle: 

  • Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (F)
  • Death in Summer – William Trevor (F)
  • The Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy (F)
  • The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind – Billy O’Callaghan (F/short stories). 

For two titles without links, I’m afraid that I didn’t write up official reviews for them. However, I can report that the Binchy was a great read – like “a big cup of tea with chocolate digestives” good read and it hit the spot at a time when stress was quite high re: the class online transition. (To give you an idea of that, I have never taught online nor have I ever taken a class online, so I had a lot of learning to do! I’m much more comfortable with the whole process now, thankfully to the high level of support from both the university and my faculty colleagues.) 

The O’Callaghan short stories were good with a couple of great ones in there. I think reading short stories as a unit is a bit of a gamble, and to be honest, I’m not convinced that reading the stories one after the other (as I did with this title) was the best way to experience them. I think I’ll probably make more of an effort to spread out the short-story reads a little more in the future. I bet that is a completely different reading experience that way. 

Anyway, O’Callaghan is an Irish author and this was a good read. I also have one of his novels on deck so perhaps that might be more up my alley. 

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Another read that was definitely up my alley was an old collection of themed essays from the acclaimed zoologist Sir David Attenborough. Called “Journeys to the Past”, this collection of writing pieces goes back to the 1960s when Attenborough was traveling to far-flung places such as Madagascar, Tongo and Australia’s Northern Territories “doing what he does best, journeying with camera and pen to observe animals and tribal customs in some of the remotest parts of the world,” says the book cover. 

Although written 60 years ago, this essay collection more than meets the mark for excellence in nonfiction writing. I had wondered if there would be some non-PC descriptions of places and peoples, but there were none. (I shouldn’t have worried. It was Attenborough, after all.) A thoroughly enjoyable armchair travel with an erudite and humorous host who plainly adores what he was lucky enough to do. He’s is just as thrilled meeting the local tribal representatives and learning their customs, despite his main focus being on animals, and his enthusiasm and respect for the individuals who he meets in the course of his travels were a balm for this frazzled soul. 

This was by far one of the best of the reads I’ve had in the past few weeks, and if you’re looking for some gentle reads combined with some far-off travel (from the comfort of your own shelter-in-place home), then you won’t go wrong with Sir David. 

A completely different read from Attenborough was a short read by NYT critic, Margo Jefferson, who wrote a small collection of provocative essays about Michael Jackson. (Yes, that Michael Jackson. Thriller one.) Jefferson takes a pretty academic lens to Jackson’s life and provides much food for thought about him. I’m still thinking about this read and am contemplating putting together a full review of this book since it’s got a lot of material inside the slim page count. (I’ve read some other Jefferson work: check out the review of Negroland here.)

So, I’ve been reading. And napping. And learning new software. And playing with my animals. And going for walks. And more napping. 🙂  I’m planning on adding more reading to this list from now on. 

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

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.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

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. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon (when he was still speaking with her ref: above parag.). (NYT.)

Death in Summer – William Trevor (1998)

A second Trevor read for me (see review of Felicia’s Journey here), this was another tightly-wound narrative with wounded characters interacting with each other. (I wonder if this is a pattern with Trevor novels/short stories? I’ll have to investigate further.)

The plot revolves around the Davenant family and their big old house in which they have lived for several generations. Current inhabitants Thaddeus and wife Letitia (along with infant Georgina) have put a lot of money into renovations, funded chiefly by Letitia’s family money. 

In fact, this financial resource was really what pushed Thaddeus into marrying Letitia, as he doesn’t really love her. In contrast, his emotional attachment to his daughter is a surprise to him since his difficult childhood did not prepare him for loving anyone and so Thaddeus is faced with new feelings to handle.

At the same time as the fairly recent birth of his daughter, wife Letitia is killed while riding in country lanes on her bicycle, and so Thaddeus not only has to handle his almost-overwhelming and surprising (to him) adoration of Georgina but also face his wife’s death (and his lack of feelings with regard to that). 

Into the middle of this whirlpool of emotion arrives Letitia’s mother (Georgina’s grandma) who volun-forcesThaddeus into letting her live with him and Georgina in the house to “help” him parent the child. Prior to this arrangement, the family had been looking into hiring a nanny to help with childcare and so both Letitia’s mother and Thaddeus go ahead initially to interview three not-really-qualified young women.

It’s one of these three interviewees who really throws the spanner in the works for the small family. Both Thaddeus and Pettie, the young woman in question, have the same need to love little Georgina, but it’s expressed in very different ways and when Pettie commits a serious crime, things come to a head for both of these damaged adults. 

It’s a tightly-wrapped narrative, like a noose that is slowly strangling you, and when another death occurs in the Davenant orbit, is it a chance for redemption? And if so, for whom?

Another good read from William Trevor. I wonder how his short stories are?… [Toddles off to the library – if it’s open due to coronavirus.]

(Read as part of Cathy746’s Reading Ireland Month.)

Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (1988)

This was my second foray into the literature of Molly Keane (also published under the name of M.J. Farrell during the 1930s) and this was another read from her that was a good experience whilst also being slightly prickly. (See review of Devoted Ladies [1934] here.)

This novel, as implied by the title, is about the push-and-pull of tricky family relationships and how the central protagonist, at the start a young girl, tries her best to understand and adapt to the people who surround her. However, despite her efforts to be “loving and giving” (cue: title), the recipients of her intentions aren’t always responsive in predictable ways, and this was a little heartbreaking for me, as a reader, as I could see how this was slowly breaking this young girl’s heart (although the adults involved had no idea about this).

Nicandra, the lead character, is only eight years old and living in the isolated and rural world of a rather grand Irish estate called Deer Forest in 1914. Her life is organized and satisfactory. Her mother is beautiful and loved; her father distant and involved in running the estate; her Aunt Tossie walks about grandly in her widow’s weeds. But one day, her mother runs away and things change overnight for Nicandra.

Thrown into confusion and sadness (as of course no one has a conversation with her about her mother’s absence – them’s the times and place), Nicandra vows to make up for her missing mother by providing everyone left with lots of love and kindness. But things go rather awry.

The author was in her 80s when this was finished. decades after Keane’s other novels were published, but it’s clear that life has not softened the edges of her mind and how she handles her characters. This novel follows the sharpening of young Nicandra as her efforts to be kind are rebuffed and misinterpreted over the years and how these reactions shape her life in terms of loving and being loved.

It’s a sad novel in many ways and reflects how life doesn’t always turn out as glamorous as you would like to be. As the house falls into disrepair, so does the family break down, and then the ending of this novel was just fantastic. (Shan’t say anything about it, but believe me. It’s good.)

So, a prickly but enjoyable read. You don’t need to love the characters in a book to care about them, and this is ably demonstrated in this novel by Molly Keane. Another off the TBR pile (been there for years!) and read as part of Cathy 746’s Reading Ireland Month project. Thank you for the nudge to read this title!

Reading Ireland Month 2020 with Cathy746

I’ve decided to join in with Cathy (at Cathy746 blog) to read some books by (or about) Irish people or the country itself, and as a start (although it’s actually in its second week), I pondered to myself exactly how much Irish literature I’d read over the past few years.

(BTW, if you haven’t met Cathy yet, her blog is really interesting and all about Irish lit. She is one of its biggest cheerleaders in bookish circles, it seems.)

So, I went trawling through my blog posts and found quite a few. Most of these I have loved so I think you may as well. Have a nosie if you’d like:

  • Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw (1912) play

The Family Next Door – John Glatt (2019)

Subtitle: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and their Extraordinary Rescue. (Cue: longest subtitle in the world.)

From the publisher:

On January 14, 2018, a 17-year old girl climbed out of the window of her Perris, Calif., home and dialed 911 with shaking fingers. Struggling to stay calm, she told the operator that she and her 12 siblings – ranging in age from two to 29 – were being abused by their parents. When the dispatcher asked for her address, the girl hesitated. “I’ve never been out,” she stammered.

To their family, neighbors and online friends, Louise and David Turpin presented a picture of domestic bliss: dressing their 13 children in matching outfits and buying them expensive gifts. But what police discovered when they entered the Turpin home would eclipse the most shocking child abuse cases in history.

This wasn’t an easy read (in terms of the topic) but it was a quick read (in terms of how much time it took to actually turn the pages). The topic of this severe ongoing child abuse was so tough for me (because the parents were so very horrible), in fact, that there were several times that I nearly put down the book unfinished, and this would have been a shame on several levels.

I really finished it because I felt that I owed the book’s subjects, the Turpin family siblings, that I should finish it as a way of supporting them. (And I don’t have any child abuse in my family or anything and yet it was still a wickedly hard read to complete.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, this is basically a fairly straightforward recounting of the Turpin family, made up of a truly terrible mother and father and their thirteen poor children. The parents created a cult of sorts within the house which enabled the two adults to seriously abuse all thirteen of the kids every day of their lives, from ages newborn to late twenties. How did this happen? Why didn’t the older children run away when they could? Why did no one know this was going on?

Written by true-crime reporter John Glatt, this is a pretty well researched story that covers just how the Turpin parents managed to keep such tight control over their growing brood of kids – and yet no one (not a family member, not a neighbor, no one) noticed (or alerted authorities). The parents kept everything awful happening only within the house by keeping their children inside under lock and key (and sometimes chained to the bed for hours, days and weeks at a time).

Glatt goes into the background and history of the family, and, as is typically the case in situations like these, it’s related to the development of a cult-like situation, to a twisting and manipulation by those with power, and a testament to the ripples that can occur through generations of truly awful parenting.

The Turpin parents would not just abuse all these kids, but also do things that would amount to torture for children.

The Turpin kids (faces blocked out).

For example, the children were never given enough food or drink (leading to developmental delays) but the mother would buy a fruit pie and leave it on the kitchen counter in full display of these hungry kids. However, no one would be allowed to actually eat the pie and so, despite being really hungry, the family would have to watch the pie gradually rot in its own plate.

At Christmas, the parents would buy loads of expensive presents but again, the kids were not actually allowed to touch or use the presents. For example, one Christmas, each of the 13 siblings was bought a new outside bike to play with but the bikes were kept outside (but in front of the house windows), for years, rusting under an overhanging shelter with the tags still on them whilst the kids were imprisoned inside.

Education was another thing withheld. Some of the younger siblings (including young teenagers) were not taught the whole of the alphabet, despite the home being officially registered as a home school with the state. It’s this never-ending litany of awful things that almost made me put the book down, but I felt a responsibility to the Turpin siblings to finish it out.

There were two frustrating things with how the book was written, however. First was that Glatt, as a journalistic reporter, relies far too much on just one mental health/child abuse expert and only refers to this one source throughout the entire book. Additionally, this was also a mental health expert who hadn’t even met the family and so was entirely removed from the true story. What? You could only find ONE expert to talk about this story with all its twists and turns? No other sources out there who could, perhaps, address the world of religious cults, of child abuse, of family relationships…? Hmm. So that struck me as just being very lazy on the part of the author.

Second, there wasn’t that much information to finish off the story so it was a little dissatisfactory from a reader’s perspective. I can understand why – the Turpin siblings are off living their lives as best they can with new names and new environments – but it was still frustrating as a reader to not know a few more details, so the book ended rather suddenly for me.

I don’t know that it could have ended any other way, to be honest, but after all the detail in the first three-quarters of the book, the recounting of the court case seemed repetitive and superficial. But then that goes back to protecting the anonymity of the remaining Turpin siblings and their new lives. We don’t learn any further details about them, but I can completely understand the why and I only hope that they are thriving with support.