General Catch-Up – October 2019

Autumn has finally arrived here in my region of the world. The temps have been cooling down significantly – even enough for us to put the flannel sheets on the bed. (I’d forgotten how delicious these feel to sleep between: it’s like sleeping in clouds. Sigh. Bliss.) I’m wearing socks more regularly during the day and even had to pull on a coat last week. I’m loving it all.

There are some Octobers when I’m just pulled back into one more read of “Dracula,” the 1897 classic by Irish writer Bram Stoker. (For a previous review, see here and here.) My typical experience is that I really enjoy the whole experience, even if it’s not the first time of reading it – I’m up to about five times now… And now I think it’s time to give it a break.

It’s got all the same great ingredients: epistolary, scary-but-not-too-scary, familiar storyline but, for some reason, this year’s read dragged for me which signals that perhaps I need a break. It’s been fun, Bram, but I’m gonna to put you aside for a while so I can get your “special” back. No hard feelings. You’re still awesome. I’ll still come back to you. Just not for a while. (And if you’d like to see a review of an earlier version of Dracula-like creatures, try The Vampire by John Polidori (1819).)

In other news: we went to a really good play over the weekend. Called “Black Girl, Interrupted”, it was written by Iyanisha Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at our university here, and was stupendous. Seriously. It was an excellent play-going experience and was completely professionally run. The play is based on the real-life rape and murder of a black female soldier in the Iraq conflict and how the U.S. Army covered it up as a suicide. (The drama is fictionalized from there, but the actual basis of the plot is true.) So – phew. Hard topic but again, an excellent experience. If this play comes to your area, I highly recommend it.

I’ve been reading but have had some titles recently which have been good, but for some reason, haven’t had a blog post about them. One, especially, deserves its own post but for time reasons, this mention will have to do. “The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (F) was a fast and thoughtful YA read, epistolary (as the title implies) and about a young teenager who goes against the cultural mores of his tribe when he decides to go to a high school “off rez”. A sensitive and provocative read about the importance of fitting in balanced with being true to yourself. I bet high schoolers love this read. (Maybe not. They might be more enamored of “Twilight” or playing on TikTok or similar…:-} )

Another read (although this was not half as good) was a quick peruse through “The Well-Dressed Lady’s Pocket Guide” by Karen Homer (2013), who has written for Vogue and other fashion mags. Fairly ok, but didn’t really have that much helpful information in terms of wardrobe, but a pretty ok foundation overall. I’m trying to make more use of my current clothes, especially with our cooler temperatures, and was rather hoping that this guide would help with that. It was actually more of a brief historical overlook of fashion, which was ok – just not what I had been looking for/hoping for.

In the in-between times, I’ve been sucked into the flow of doing another jigsaw puzzle – I’m addicted to these things and time just disappears when I’m doing them sometimes. This one (on the right) is a redo of one my mum and I attempted a couple of years ago on one of her visits, but we had run out of time to finish it. I’m determined to finish this sucker now. 🙂

And now it’s almost November. Thanksgiving is around the corner (wow) and then, I saw Christmas stuff in Target yesterday…

And I found a big stash of Twiglets half-price (below) whilst I visited World Market. (They are typically very hard to find, locally, so this stash will need to last quite some time. In theory.) Life is good.

Nonfiction November Week 1: The reading so far…

Intro by What’s Nonfiction?:

Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!

This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)

What has been your favorite NF read so far this year?
In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)

What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year?
Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.) 

This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.

That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!

Which NF book have I recommended the most this year?
Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!

What am I hoping to get out of NF November?

I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?

I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!

ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

Guest Post: Nova Dog and Bones the Cat.

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

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

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

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

Aya: The Secrets Come Out – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Ouberie (2009)

In this, the third volume of an ongoing series about Aya, the story continues with this young woman (now in her early 20s?) in Yop City on the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. 

If you’re a regular reader of JOMP, you may recall that I’ve been an ongoing fan of Abouet and Oubrerie’s graphic series: for reference, have a look at reviews of Volume 1 (Aya) and Volume II (Aya of Yop City).

This volume continues Aya’s (auto-?) biography of life in Yop City, a middle-sized community where the protagonist and her friends all live, and this edition resumes the ongoing pattern of showing how perhaps “more typical” African middle-class families may live. 

What I really appreciate about this graphic novel series is that it shows how very “normal” (in Western eyes) life can be for folks who live in this part of Africa: how they are not dealing with what is shown on TV as typical (starving children and armed rebels impacting the stability of the country, as examples). 

Aya and her community face similar problems as comparable American women (for example, there are worries about her future career, she’s concerned with fashion and beauty, self-esteem troubles etc. and her friends go about their lives with patterns similar to those of American women of the same age). 

Marguerite Abouet
Marguerite Abouet

Interestingly, at the same time as showing these cultural overlaps, Abouet and Oubrerie also include situations that are more specific to this region of the world: one of their fathers wants to have a second bride while a male relative of Aya’s is facing issues related to being gay in a historically homophobic environment. 

So, as with the previous volumes, it’s a great mix of issues, each of which adds further to the overall narrative of helping western readers see that African nations (and their peoples) are more similar to these readers than they are different.

The art is effective and adds to the story, the actual narrative keeps you interested and although you’d would need to read the previous volumes to keep up with all the characters, it’s a good read. I really appreciated the extras that the authors had included as well, especially the family trees for Aya and her friends. (I was constantly going back and forth to remind myself who was who and how they fit in to her community – it did get a little confusing in places, but that might have been my monkey mind at the time.) 

I recommend this series if you’re interested in learning about other people, if you’re interested in intersectionality, if you’re interested in the world in general… I think I was most appreciative of the counter-narrative of the more-publicized message of African countries being full of unrest and “third-world problems”. There’s no denying that some do, but there are also those whose citizens have more overlap with their readers than they may realize. 

This would be a great series to have in a HS library to show younger readers how people may live in a world that is getting smaller and yet bigger at the same time. 

Fergus has a guest post…

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

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

The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955)

October Country…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. 

Seeing as it’s October and thus the month of Halloween, I thought I’d dig around and see what kind of slightly-horror book I could read to join in the fun. I am a complete wimp when it comes to scary novels but I can do Bradbury since he rather feels like spec fiction more than true horror. (I really enjoy spec fiction when the world in the novel is almost the same as the one we’re in, but just with a little twist and a piece of lemon.) 🙂

Obviously, when you read Bradbury’s work, especially this one written between 1945 and 1955, it’s going to be a really white-people experience with little in the name of diversity, but that’s ok. You know that going in, for the most part, so it’s not too jarring. That was the country back then and writers tend to reflect the times in which they live and write. 

Bradbury is a very good writer. He knows how to utilize language and structural techniques to make each story excellent examples of technically superb fiction-writing, and I usually typically look forward to reading one of his titles. And this was that similar experience for me. Flawless writing, each short story an excellent example of the short-story format. That’s not to say that I really liked every story in the collection: as in any selection of a writer’s work, there are going to be personal hits-and-misses, but this was overall one of those perfect-reads-at-a-perfect-time. I love it when that happens.

Each story is a little bit spooky in a world that’s just a little bit off-kilter, but nothing too scary. There were definitely one or two that got my heart racing a little bit, but nothing too terrorizing. Like I mentioned, it’s mostly speculative fiction way more than horror, so if you’re ok with that, you’ll get on with this collection. 

Stories ranged widely in subject matter, from domestic situations gone awry to poignant encounters with funhouse mirrors and strange poker chips, and as Bradbury’s second short story collection, it was a true reflection of his writing style.

I enjoyed it and I’m glad that I read it during October when the weather (at least here in Texas) is finally starting to behave like it’s autumn in terms of outside temperatures and the leaves turning colors. Luckily, Bradbury has a big oeuvre from which to choose my next read… I’m thinking “Something Wicked This Way Comes…” at some point. 

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015)

This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.

It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…

As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)

It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)

As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.

And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.

There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.

And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.

Super-good read.

(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?

OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)?  Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)

For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).