Playing around…

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Source: Shutterstock

Summer is here in every way, shape and form now we are in June. It’s fairly common to have multiple days of more than a hundred degrees as the high temperature, and I’m hoping that the oncoming weeks will bring us some more rain. (We live in a semi-arid desert region and most of the rain tends to fall around now. However, climate change (even the one invented by China 🙂 ) seems to be impacting that, so we’ll see. ETA: We had rain!!

The laid-back summer vibe continues apace, and it’s a very nice pace indeed. What have I been up to? Well, frankly, not much, and that’s fine with me.

Reading, naturally, has been happenin’ but since I’m spending a lot of time away from the computer screen, I think I’m just going to do some briefer round-up summary reviews instead of the in-depth ones. You won’t mind, will you? 🙂

I have been focusing more on the TBR pile, trying to make some inroads on that (**dry cough**), and I had a fun read of Famous American Plays of the ’40s (Henry Hewes, ed.). I’m not a drama expert in any way but I do rather like reading (and seeing plays) and I’ve had pretty good luck with this series (Famous American Plays of NAME the DECADE). Admittedly, the selections do tend to be very white and male, but you need to start somewhere, right? (Another good collection of plays (this time the 1950s/early 60s) is Six American Plays for Today edited by Bennet Cerf, in case you’re looking for something with variety.)

So this anthology of plays from the 1940s contained the following titles:

  • Home of the Brave – Arthur Laurents (1945)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller (1947)
  • Lost in the Stars – Maxwell Anderson (1949)
  • The Member of the Wedding – Carson McCuller (1950).

Three out of four were memorable, so that’s not too bad considering that I was familiar with approximately zero of these works of drama, and I enjoyed the read for the most part. Good find at the old FoL sale one year. I think I have a couple more of these titles (Famous Plays of the DECADE), so will pull them off the shelf at some point. I’m trying to make them last though. 🙂

(Linked with plays and drama, we also went to a showing of Ripcord (by David Lindsay-Abaire) at our local am-dram community theater. I love going to these things…Incredibly unlikely that I will ever get up on stage, but I have a good time from the audience seats watching others who are braver than I go up on stage.)

I also hit up a YA poetry book, Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) which was great. If you have any younger readers who quake at the thought of poetry, this would be a good introduction as the poetry is approachable and in free verse. It describes the childhood and adolescence of a young girl growing up in the north and with family in the south. Excellent read. Woodson has written quite a bit of YA stuff, so more to chase down at some point.

Picked up a more light-hearted title called The Diary of Hendrick Groen Aged 83 3/4 by an anonymous author. This is rather like an OAP version of Bridget Jones’ Diary – epistolary, funny, dry sense of humor. It tracks a year of OAP Groen as he moves into an old people’s home and makes friends and has adventures. Pretty funny. (It’s a Dutch book, I believe. Same sort of vein as A Man Called Ove, if you’ve read that one.)

Read a rather oblique and graduate-school-mill book by Amit Chaudhuri (2000), Freedom Song. Actually, this title (Freedom Song) contains three different novels inside its pages, but I only read one. As I didn’t really connect with the characters in this first story, I’ve ripped off the bandage and moved the book to the donate pile without reading the other two selections. (Woo hoo. Another off the TBR pile and out of the house!)

I think that those are most of the titles I’ve read since last I reviewed a book on this here ol’ blog, so I think that brings us up to speed now. More reading to come, no doubt…

And remember that jigsaw puzzle that I was working on a few days ago? Here is its most recent progress photograph:

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DH describes me as a crackhead in terms of just how addicting these puzzles can be. Oh my….

 

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Things on Cowboy’s Head

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Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day nine years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

“No more teachers, no more school…”

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(That title may be somewhat obscure, but it is a reference to the song by Alice Cooper which details the delights of reaching summer holidays for schoolchildren. If you need a memory prod, try it here. It’s not the Glee one. 🙂 )

With May also under our belts, it means that the university’s semester is completed, grades are in and now, for the first time, I get to enjoy (and appreciate) faculty summer. I’m fortunate to have a contract which states that I only have to go to the office one day/week (for some meetings, really – the lifeblood of the professional life). And so, the next three months seem to be full of promise and opportunity. (The only time that I’ve ever had such a stretch of free time was during unemployment, and you just can’t enjoy it then.)

Plans for the summer include auditing a class for Summer I (if it makes with enough students), teaching a class for Summer II, and then it will be the autumn and time for classes to start up once more for a brand new school year. I have a writing conference to go to in July, and probably a trip somewhere sometime with my mum and sister, but there’s mostly free time for me to with as I wish. What an awesome present to have!

I’ve been reading, naturally. I seemed to have hit a bit of a reader’s block towards the end of the semester, but that is now sorted out, and I’ve popped to the library to pick up one or five alluring titles. I also owe you guys a couple of reviews… In the meantime, here is my loot from the library:

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It’s good to have choices… 

Victoria and Abdul – Shrabani Basu (2010) NF about a friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a servant from India who was waiting tables at a celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. (Lots of scandal, apparently.)

Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience – Chandra Prasad (ed.) (2006) F. I’ve tried this one, but it didn’t stick. Maybe another time…

Diana: In Search of Herself – Sally Bedell Smith (1999) NF. (This was related to my viewing the Royal wedding the other day…) I’ve read a couple of other titles (The Queen and Prince Charles) by this author so hoping this one will be as good.

Mankiller: A Chief and her People – Wilma Mankiller (1993) NF. Mankiller is (was?) the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and this is described as an autobiography of the tribe itself.

Paradise – Toni Morrison (1997) F. (Loved Morrison’s other reads so far: Jazz, Beloved, Sula…)

Extraordinary American Indians – Susan Avery and Linda Skinner (1992) NF. This is a juvenile read but I was looking for a general overview of First Peoples in the US, and this title came up.

And of course, I have all these great titles from which to choose, so what do I read? Something on my Kindle: Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Noah is the host of The Daily Show and has an interesting story to tell. His childhood was pretty rough when he was growing up in South Africa, and although he’s not the best writer in the world, he has a good story to tell.

Oh, and then I was in the mood for some short stories and trawled my TBR to find the 1999 edition of the Best American Short Stories (edited by Amy Tan). Enjoying these, but I think it’s best if I don’t read them one after the other. I need to take a break from these or they become a bit same-y when they’re really not. (My fault. I accept it.)

And we saw the sequel to Deadpool yesterday. My advice: save your money. :-}

And in the afternoons when it’s actually too hot to go outside and be productive, I have started a jigsaw puzzle. Fun times!

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ETA: Oh dear god. This is a hard one. What was I thinking? 

Cold Weather Reads for the Hot Season (at least here in Texas!)

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The temperatures here in West Texas are creeping up and have hit the typical numbers now, which means hot, hot, and more hot. I’m not the biggest fan of these never-ending hot and dry days, but luckily for me, I don’t have to work in the cotton fields or live in a house without air-conditioning. 🙂

It still doesn’t take the fact away that the days here can get really warm, and so I thought it might help keep us cool if I put together a reading list of books that feature cold weather in some way. (Cold and wet would be even better! You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the girl, as they say.)

So, here are a few suggested titles from both the blog and my TBR that might do the trick for cooling down your internal thermometer:

Antarctica would be a good place to start, so how about a read of the riveting adventure of Captain Scott and his fatal expedition at the turn of the twentieth century? Apsley Cherry-Garrard has The Worst Journey in the World, a two-volume diary that details almost every step of the way and is an adventure classic that is hard to put down. You can almost shiver in sympathy at these poor men who follow an almost despotic leader across iceburgs with completely inadequate equipment and training. (Volume l and Volume II). Another angle would the biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard called simply Cherry (TBR).

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If your goal is general survival, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (TBR) as it looks like it has some useful tips based on research, but if you’d rather look at a slightly warmer (and more civilized) trip across some wilderness, you could try Mary Bosanquet’s Saddlebags to Suitcases, where she details her time crossing some of Canada on horseback back in the 1930’s/1940’s. It’s still cool, but more summertime cool.

If you’re interested in history and the pioneer life (since it can get pretty cold in a log cabin or sod house), Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West looks good (TBR), and I know that Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993) is excellent.

If you’d prefer to look at pioneer things through a  family saga perspective, you could always read the classic, Giants of the Earth by O.E. Rolvagg (1927) which has some cold parts of it. (Clearly, since the story is placed on the northern plains of the U.S. in a log cabin…)

Speaking of living a domestic life for pioneers, another good read (this time a how-to book) is The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher Stowe and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), an excellent guide for first-time explorers which tells you how to survive both the hot and the cold if you’re building a new life and a log cabin on the plains.

db035d32e6865b0673e873457270f2c5Another good pioneer perspective (including a difficult winter or two), this time from a very cheerful and optimistic newcomer, is The Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart (1914) or you could return to old faithfuls such as The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940). Or even the NF book, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin (2004) (TBR) which tells the tale of how a group of children got lost during a blizzard in America’s heartland back in the 1880’s.

Speaking of bleak weather, if you’d like to travel with a man and a boy during the aftermath of a tremendous event, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as unrelenting a read as the bad weather and bad luck for these characters. (That’s a toughie to read, IMHO.)

On the other hand, if your plans are more “travel-around-the-world-with-servants” style, and you need some non-fiction to know *exactly* what to pack, try the Victorian travel book, The Art of Travel by Francis Galton (1854) . (So. Much. Stuff. But that’s ok as you’re not the one carrying it. :-} )

DQWqwPVXkAAFMF5Perhaps your plans include a journey via the Himalayas, so you could have an enjoyable journey with Michael Palin when he went there: Himalaya (2004) is a book about his travels there one year.

Another true adventure book that gets a bit cold is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (TBR) which follows the truly amazing journey of seven prisoners of war who escape from a Soviet labor camp and travel across Siberia, China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India in 1941. (Also the related film tells their story and is called “The Long Way Back” (2010) if you’re more of a film buff.)

And if you’d rather take a look at the Russian side of the world, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968) is a riveting quick read about how one Polish family survives as prisoners in Siberia around the start of WWII.

If you’d like to get away from almost everything, I’ve heard it gets a bit cold out in space, so you could always refer to Chris Hadfield’s lovely book about his life as an astronaut, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life (2013)… (or Mary Roach’s pretty hilarious Packing for Mars…)

For a rather different take on life on English moors, try The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959) , a collection of short stories by one of the more recognizable names of The Angry Young Men movement in mid-century England.

Or you could venture out onto the cold and rainy moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)  or perhaps another of the many Sherlock Holmes titles. (They usually involve some cold places of one kind or another.)

More cold-weather crime is via Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, a collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. And don’t forget Dame Agatha Christie who has some cold reads, Murder on the Orient Express being one of the more obvious choices.

You might prefer to go more on the domestic route with some dreary weather, so perhaps The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1954) or a quick WWII domestic read of 1939’s Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struthers). You know what? The gritty Irish trilogy that starts with The Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien, 1962) or maybe the trilogy that starts with The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks (also published in the 1960s) might hit the spot since that’s rather a cold book (re: temperature) at times. There’s also a sequel to that as well: The Backward Shadow (1970) and that’s followed by the final title, Two is Lonely (TBR). (These titles are also known as the “Jane Graham” series…) Just sayin’. Sometimes you want dreary, amiright?

For a snowy and slightly scary story, don’t forget that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)  has some chilly moments in it as well, as does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896).

Peter Hessler has written several NFs about life in rural China, so perhaps start with River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze about his time teaching in a small rural town, although there are several titles from which to choose. It has some cold scenes in it.

Similar (in that both places can be cold) but different would be a read of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010) of life for the typical person in North Korea. Brr. Hungry, poor and cold? No thank you.

If you’re not quite sure where exactly you’d like to go to get cooler, any of the prestigious America’s Best… volumes can take you almost anywhere you’d like, with travel writing collected and edited by a variety of authors (including Bill Bryson (2000) , Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), William Vollman (2012)   etc.)  These collections typically contain a mix of climates as part of their writing selections (although they can sometimes lack diversity in the author selections)…

Finally, for the more science-y folks, you could learn more about the amazing snowflake and see some stunning photography, in The Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrechrt and Patricia Rasmussen (2003).  This title even makes some parts of physics comprehensible and fascinating… (And that’s me saying that from the perspective of dropping physics and chemistry when I was 12 years old. If I can understand it from my non-science background, it’s probable that you will as well. Plus – great photography.)

So, there you go. Some wintery reads for you if you’re stuck with hot temperatures. Hope that helps (or at least guides the way for) you if you’re sweltering…!

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Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….

 

Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

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(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (1992)

naylor1A recent find at our local FoL Spring Book Sale, this was a really good read and was actually just what I was looking for when I picked it up. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Naylor’s more famous book, “The Women of Brewster Place” (1982) and had originally gone looking for that title, but when I couldn’t find that one, this title popped up and into my grubby mitts and for once, I actually read a book that I had bought the same weekend that I had bought it. (A lot of times, I may purchase a book and then read anything BUT that title, but this weekend, there was the perfect overlap between my reading goals and the titles available. Dosen’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s simply magic.)

I’d been looking for a fairly comfortable domestic book written by a POC* author, and so although it wasn’t necessarily my first title choice, it ended up being a fantastic read all the same. I had wanted to read about several characters who perhaps lived in a community where their lives overlapped at times – similar to what I call a “tapestry” book where there are multiple characters (the different colored threads in a piece of fabric) whose individual lives overlap and interweave to create a multi-colored picture that’s richer for the overlap. (Similar to a tapestry in my mind.)

38550903nayl_20010701_01867.jpgI had heard of Naylor as the author of “The Women of Brewster Place”, but going along the shelves, I could only find this title. However, no worries. Everything that I had read about the Brewster Place novel had been good, so I considered this to be a low-risk proposition to pick up another title.

Additionally, it also met the criteria for another ongoing foci that I have right now of reading more POC authors and POC topics. I have a tendency to revert to Northern European authors and titles, presumably because they are more likely to come to mind, but after having had such a good experience reading authors of African-American descent in February’s Black History Month, I am determined to keep that awareness up throughout the remainder of the year until the pattern becomes something ingrained and one that I don’t have to particularly think about.

So, Naylor it was and I opened this title, “Bailey’s Café” late on Saturday night. After being unable to put it down for any long time between then and Sunday evening, I turned the last page with a contented sigh. It had been a great read.

But – pray. What is it about, I hear you ask? It’s a plot that revolves around a hole-in-the-wall café in an unspecified town and via the proprietor of the café, we are introduced to some of the regulars who come in for a (bad) cup of coffee and a (good) piece of pie or similar. It’s an idiosyncratic place with no menu and set food on particular days regardless of what you’re actually like to eat. It’s a home away from home for some of these characters and through the eyes of the café owner, we meet each of these memorable personalities with the common meeting place of the restaurant.

It’s a fairly straightforward read, with no chicanery in playing with time or other narrative structures. However, just because it’s a straightforward read in that sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s boring and predictable as each character is different and has a story (as you might guess) and towards the end there is some magical realism (but don’t let that scare you off).

There’s a transgender woman, someone who runs a brothel (except it’s much more than that to the people who live within its walls), and several other characters who have had (or currently lead) non-conformist lives, but Naylor’s storytelling carries no judgement for these people. The café is an accepting place for its customers, and as each person enters the building, the café owner (through whose eyes we see everyone) describes his take on each life and tells us some of the background of his customers, while at the same time, telling us about his own life with wife Nadine.

It’s very well done, and if you’re looking for a good solid read about some believable characters living fairly typical lives (but who fall outside the “norms”) then you’ll dig this read. I’m definitely going to scour around for Naylor’s other work after reading this book. (First one: The Women of Brewster Place…)

Naylor is a great author and has been recognized with a litany of literary awards, including being a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and “The Women of Brewster Place” won the National Book Award in 1983. She died in September 2016.

* Note: “POC” is an acronym which refers to “People of Color” meaning any person who is not white. POC individuals may come from any country in any part of the world, but they have a different life experience than the typical white/caucasian person which informs their work.

New Books…

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The FoL summer book sale was held the other day, and although I tried to not go, I did end up spending some time there. (Well, to not go would have been so rude, don’t you think?)

And so this is what I ended up with in my shopping bag, all ready for a future summer’s day. Uncertain which summer it will be, but I’m ready!  🙂

Top to bottom:

  • Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (usually good fiction writer)
  • The Last Picture Show – Larry McMurtry (fiction set in Texas. I first read this in my first semester at American university and hadn’t been in Texas long enough to get the references. I think now that I’ve been here a while, I will appreciate it more.)
  • The Best American Short Stories (1999) – edited by Amy Tan (F) (current slight craze on short stories)
  • Tinkerbelle – Robert Manry (NF travel – guy has never sailed before, but buys a boat and sails across the Atlantic with many adventures…)
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F and African-American classic which I haven’t read but with the new focus on reading more POC will do so soon)
  • Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (F) (see above about the focus on reading more POC authors)
  • Advertising in America – (NF) big coffee book with some lovely color plates of old advertising from across the USA

And going against my usual grain of not-reading-things-I’ve-just-bought, I’ve just finished a good read of the Naylor fiction. Loved it so expect more to come about that.

So hmm…. What’s next?