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. 

A Book on Medical Discourses in Two Parts – Rebecca Crumpler, M.D. (1883)

My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)

Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…

(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)

Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.

Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very courageous and determined she was:

  • 1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
  • 1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
  • 1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
  • 1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)

But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the medical college.)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, doctress.

So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!

Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American populations as well…)

It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:

Baby health advice (under 5s):

One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂

All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “  (Chapter 5)

If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat, Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t give the baby “soot tea”, by any means.

Saffron tea is really crocus tea?  And was popular for baby’s poop problems?

Don’t give infants a “little weak toddy” to “bring up wind and make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may “inculcate a desire for tippling in many of our weak-minded youth”.

Later on: watch out if giving your baby any alcohol: it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”  

And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)

And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.

And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them” – the habit needs to “vanish like dew before the noonday sun” …

Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).

If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom

Teething and not wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.

Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…

Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…

If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…

If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)

Reading for kids is also dangerous:
Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?

For a breast-feeding mother:

If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get hold…” !!

(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)

If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being hungry).

Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”…  But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.

Do try to avoid cholera if you can:

There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation – it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive (or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children (and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…

Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)

Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)

And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic, it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread cholera.

And who’s responsible for all this?…

Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.

Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)

(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)

Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that women “appear to shrink from any responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.

She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the weather.’’

Advice for women’s health in general:

Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren, have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).

Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)

Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.

Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.

(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…” Huh.

Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…

Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines (especially those that contract or depress muscles): “may cause suffocation and death at any moment.”

Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork, gaseous vegetables, and anything that depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should help.

Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.

Fascinating stuff!

Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (1994)

For my next read (this one from the TBR shelves), I pulled “Snow Angels” by Stuart O’Nan (1994). O’Nan and I have crossed paths with previous reads (see Emily Alone (2011) [which I loved], The Odds (2012) and Wish You were Here (2002)) and a movie (Last Night at the Lobster Café), and we really have rather a mixed view of each other. (He’s a little middle-aged male angst-y for me at times, although Emily Alone was nothing like that.) So in a past FoL Book Sale, I had tracked down another of his titles and that is what I pulled off the shelf for this read. It looked like a pretty solid run-of-the-mill American drama read.

And it was, overall. It’s a short read, but it covers a lot of mileage. Let me steal the description used for the 2008 movie-of-the-book from Rotten Tomatoes:

Waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has separated from her suicidal alcoholic husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Glenn has become an evangelical Christian, but his erratic attempts at getting back into Annie’s life have alarmed her. High school student Arthur (Michael Angarano) works at Annie’s restaurant, growing closer to a new kid in town, Lila (Olivia Thirlby), after class. When Glenn and Annie’s daughter go missing, the whole town searches for her, as he increasingly spirals out of control.

So, right from the get-go, you (as the reader/viewer) know it’s not going to be a huge barrel of laughs. It is rather sounding as though I didn’t really enjoy this novel, but it’s not that I didn’t “enjoy” it so much as that it was a little (a lot) darker than I had hoped for. (My fault. I accept that. There are lots of clues in the description about how dark it could be and I just didn’t pick those up.) Despite this unrelenting shadow over the story, it was still a pretty good read.

This title was about a small group of very normal people living their lives in a cold and grey northern U.S. town and where one of their young children disappears… (So – no. Not a lot of happy in that plot, is there?…)

But despite the plot being pretty bleak, it was a good read that kept me turning the pages to see how things turned out for these characters. One of the protagonists is young Arthur, a typical middle-school-aged boy whose life has been torn apart from his parents’ divorce and who is directly impacted when his much-loved former babysitter suffers from a litany of rather tragic events. And Arthur, actually, was the reason why I kept reading as these awful events occurred, I just had to make sure that Arthur was still soldiering on ok.

O’Nan is a good writer overall. He has some strong descriptive skills and he can pull together a cast of characters about whom you unexpectedly care. I think where the trouble lay was that there were no glimmers of happiness for any of his cast – none of them – and the lives that lay ahead of them were obviously not going to improve much over the years.

I think that if you enter into this read KNOWING that it’s going to be a rather gloomy book with characters who are surviving their lives (more than enjoying them), you’ll be ok. Honestly, the actual story was good – it was just a little too dreary for me, I think. I would have liked just a sprinkling of positivity for just one of the characters… So – I think O’Nan and I are done now. Thanks for the reads, sir (especially Emily Alone*). It’s not you. It’s me. :-}

And now I’m reading a NF that is taking a close look at honeybees… (Flowers. Summer months. Sunshine. Just a bit of a change of pace from the previous read!!) Along with this brilliance, another bright spot is that the annual FoL Book Sale is this weekend! Yabba dabba doo.

  • And Emily Alone is so good, that it’s probably going to be reread. Yes. That good.

Vacationland – John Hodgman (2017)

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

Swabbing the Decks – End of Summer Edition

swab_decksWell, classes on campus start this week which means that summer is now dusted and over, at least in terms of (no) job responsibilities etc. The really hot temps are going to be around for at least another two months (if not more), and the weather forecasters warned this morning of temperatures around 106 and 109 this week. Crikey. That’s a bit too hot for me. (ETA (later the same day): It was up to 115 degrees in my car today. Wah.)

Still, I’m ready for school to start and to get back into that routine. I really enjoyed the summer though and wouldn’t turn down a few more days of doing-not-much if it was offered to me! We have a week or so of school, then it’s Labor Day and then we’re back into the academic calendar for realz.

Seeing as it’s going to be sooooo hot this week outside, I foresee quite a lot of staying inside the house in the AC, so perhaps a jigsaw puzzle may be in order over the next day or two. I have a couple in the cupboard that I could finish and I haven’t done a puzzle for quite some time.

This semester, I’m scheduled to teach the same class but this time only having the lecture class. (So me talking to about 60 students about the topic). In previous years, I’ve typically had a lab as well as the lecture, which means that I get 20 of those 60 students mentioned above, but in a smaller computer classroom with lots of one-on-one time and lots of grading. But – no lab for me means no grading which means more extra time which is a nice unforeseen bonus. What to do with the extra time…? 🙂

Reading-wise, I seem to be over the lassitude of late summer (and fatigue from summer school) and now I’m reading up a storm. (Reviews to come.) I’d like to start picking up some more POC reads. Since the demise of Toni Morrison, perhaps I should read one of her titles? Haven’t read her for quite some time. (In case you’re curious, here are my thoughts on Sula, Beloved, and Jazz…)

Movies? We saw the latest Tarantino one – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” which is a slow-burning movie but pretty good overall. Tomorrow, I think we’re off to see the British movie, “Blinded by the Light” which has 90 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Curiously, the movie is also set in 1980s Luton, a small town close to where I grew up in England and a town where nothing much ever seemed to happen. Despite that, this year I’ve read a fiction book set there (The Thrill of it All) and now this movie… Who knows what will happen to that metropolis in the future? The world is its oyster, right now.  🙂

Hit the back-to-school sales for some new back-to-work clothing, but it’s far too hot to wear anything that is remotely related to autumnal sartorial choices. Right now – we’re probably going to hit the outside pool this weekend. (Wear your sunscreen, folks. A free PSA for you.)

Hope your seasonal changes are going smoothly as well!

Catching up: Midsummer edition

Well, well, well. Summer school has started and is now halfway over, so that’s why there’s been a drop in posts the last fortnight or so. It’s very fun to teach but I must admit that it definitely eats into my day, what with grading, prepping PPTs, and general admin, so reading seems to have fallen off the last few days. It’ll pick up in two weeks (when summer school’s over). Phew. 

Thought that this would be a good time to catch up with some of the more notable summer reading titles that I haven’t yet blogged about, so here you go. These haven’t been the only books I’ve read, but they are the books that have left an impression on me over the last few weeks or so. 

I am becoming pretty interested in autobios and biographies, so as I was strolling through the library shelves, I was drawn to a short biography of children’s author, Richard Scarry. My twin was very interested in Scarry’s books when we were growing up and so I picked this version up. It wasn’t a heavy-duty serious solid biography, but more of a conversation or dialogue with some of the people who knew him so it ended up a pretty lightweight read which was fine, since I was a bit brain-dead at the end of the semester when I read it. 

Then, I wanted to read from my TBR pile, so pulled a fairly recent buy for me called The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor, mainly because of two things: it was about a (fictional) music group from the eighties and the book was partly set in Luton, which is a fairly nondescript quite industrial town near to where I grew up. It’s not a town that leaps to mind for many authors and so when I saw that O’Connor had chosen it, it immediately went on to the list. 

It was a fun read that I gobbled down in just a few days and covers the life and evolution of a small group of friends who make up a band in their teenaged years and what happens to it (the band) and them as it evolves over time. Sad, funny – lots of great pop culture refs for those of us who came of age in that decade PLUS it kept mentioning landmarks that I had heard of. Well written story which kept me turning the pages. I’m on the lookout for more O’Connor (who’s actually a big Irish author so not sure why the attraction to Luton!) 

That was followed with a rather ponderous effort at reading Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers on my kindle. I’m about halfway through it right now, but it’s been put down for a week or two so I’m hoping that I haven’t lost the impetus to finish that title before I forget all the characters and what they’re doing!

Since it was summer and my brain was on holiday for a bit, I wanted a quick read that was also well written, so picked up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground which was an enjoyable romp and also gave me lots of examples of good grammar examples to show in class. (I know. Strange but true.) Features more of Tom Ripley’s adventures and was just a good read overall.

Then I soldiered through a nonfiction by Jonathon Raban called Hunting for Mister Heartbreak. I’d really appreciated one of Raban’s other reads (called Badlands [no blog post] about North Dakota, I think), so was rather hoping to replicate that level of read. I’d also enjoyed a book by Raban called Coasting (when he sails in a small boat around the coast of UK)…

Hunting for Mister Heartbreak was set to be a good read, going by the narrative arc: English man travels around America trying to find the essence of American-ness is various places, from the Florida Keys to the Deep South and in between. 

This book didn’t reach the same level of greatness that Badlands and Coasting did, though. I’m not sure why. Maybe this was an earlier volume and he hadn’t got his swing yet? There was quite a lot of him philosophizing about things in a rather superior way, and I think I just got tired of him judging the places and people who surrounded him. It just didn’t really come together and seemed more of a patchwork quilt just thrown together to create a bigger work. So-so, if you ask me, but another off the TBR pile, so that’s good. (I might be done with Raban now though.) 

Then summer school prep and the semester actually beginning which has meant more time prepping for class and grading work. I have a really good bunch of students this semester – summer school students seem to be a different breed than the long-semester ones and I’m enjoying the experience – but it’s definitely crazy-fast-paced for us to fit all the material in. Then, when summer school finishes in a couple of weeks, I get another couple of weeks off to recover and plan for the fall semester and then the school year begins again. I just adore teaching! (I hope the students enjoy it as well. :-}

Screen Time – Dogs and a RomCom

Sometimes, you just sometimes want to chill in front of the television and do approximately not much, so that is exactly what we did the other weekend. We’d run out of energy by Friday, so sadly (in retrospect) we decided to watch the romcom, Rich Crazy Asians

I had little idea about the plot of the movie apart from that it was a romcom, so my expectations weren’t skyhigh – which was lucky as the movie was such predictable crud. Yes, there are lovely-to-look-at people and yes, it’s your basic Cinderella story, but honestly, that’s all it was. 

So, I rather regret using my time to watch this, as almost any other romcom would have done the job with this rather trite plot. Just now, I was just trying to work out who the target market would be for this film, and the most obvious audience would be teenagers and college students who, perhaps, haven’t seen a thousand romcoms with the same plot. And also, they still might believe in the fairy tale for real life. I’m not sure. 

I sound really grumpy, and I wasn’t really. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized my annoyance at wasting my time with this, but then I’m not really the target market so no surprise that it didn’t tick my boxes. Aah well. 

In contrast with that sad excuse of a movie, we also watched Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018), a wonderful stop-motion (sci fi/spec fiction?) film set in Japan about a city mayor (or prefect) who puts the kibosh on dogs. After an outbreak of doggie flu, he believes that there are too many canines and so he starts in motion a campaign to move the dogs to an island for a permanent quarantine and then poison the rest. The plot follows the journey of a young boy who tries to find and then rescue his own dog. 

I’d briefly seen a trailer for Isle of Dogs at the cinema the other day, but the impression that it gave me was that it wasn’t a pleasant happy film, so I entered this movie with a bit of trepidation. (It was the SuperHero’s movie choice time.) In the end, it was really a good piece of work. I was really impressed. 

I have rather a hit-or-miss relationship with Wes Anderson since there are some of his movies with which I just haven’t clicked (e.g. The Royal TanenbaumsThe Grand Budapest Hotel), which was also another reason I was a little concerned about watching his latest. 

But, you know. I was so wrong about that. I just ended loving this film. It’s not a kids’ animation movie, for sure; instead, it’s a mature story with a stellar voice cast and an interesting plot line which was not predictable. (As you probably can see, I get annoyed by “boringly predictable” in movies sometimes.) And it was very fun trying to figure out who each of the characters were voiced by… (Such luminaries included Scarlett Johanssen, Edward Norton, Brian Cranston, Francis McDormand, Yoko Ono (!) etc.) 

What also intrigued me about this film was that it’s also based in Japan, and Anderson has the human characters only speaking in Japanese while the animals (mostly dogs) all speak in English. 

It’s been criticized by some as using cultural appropriation and being insensitive, but it’s also been supported by others who view it as an homage to Japan and Japanese culture, so it’s been a mixed bag. I think it really depends on your own individual interpretation as to which side of the fence the film falls on… There is, admittedly, some stereotypical cultural representation (such as taiko drummers, cherry blossom, a nuclear explosion, sumo wrestlers) but again, they were presented with grace as opposed to snark (at least to me). 

I can sympathize though because when I see an American (usually) film set in England, I can almost guarantee that it will have references to the soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace, the Queen/royalty, a cup of tea, and rain). However, I can usually see that the intention is not mockery most of the time, but rather a way to show admiration for England/UK/GB etc. I know that my home country is much more than these stereotypes, but in most of the cases, the actual intention is not malicious. 

I do admit that it gets a bit thorny when the racial aspect steps into the picture, but the Isle of Dogs didn’t focus on that. I’m not sure. It’s quite provocative when you think about it, and I’m really interested in how both Asian-Americans and people from Japan view the film’s portrayal of their country and culture. 

(Point to ponder: all the dogs (who end up saving the day) have obviously white people features and English/American accents. This doesn’t help the criticism that’s been offered that this movie relies on the idea of the “white savior” to save the world… Link with above note about the role role of race in the movie. Interesting to note though, isn’t it?)

Anyway, this was a really good film that assumed its viewers were intelligent enough to get its subtle humor and non-predictable narrative arc. I really enjoyed it. 

(One curious-cat question though: why does the young boy go around with a large metal screw sticking out of his head? And then why is there another screw added in his head towards the end? There’s no mention of it in the plot. Any ideas?)

A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries – Thomas Mallon (1984)

Found this older book edition on the TBR the other day when I was bibbling around, and being in the exact right mood for diaries (someone else’s – not mine!), I pulled this off the shelf. I had originally expected to read an anthology of different diaries from different people in different years, but when I got into this read, I realized that it was more academic and organized than I had thought. 

Thomas Mallon, Ph.D., is (or was?) faculty at Vassar College who teaches in the Department of English, and I’m thinking that this book was probably part of a tenure requirement packet. Saying that though doesn’t imply that I thought less of it, by any means, but it was surely a more serious read than I had prepared for. This was fine in the end, but it did need a mind shift to get there after the first few pages.

So, this was not the book that I had thought I was going to read, but it turned out to be really interesting all the same. It was still a book about diaries, but the contents were organized thematically (as opposed to by author or time period) and so the usual suspects that typically make diary-related anthologies were also supplemented by less well-known ones as well, which was an enjoyable extra. 

Each chapter was called a large thematic title (e.g. Chroniclers, Pilgrims, Prisoners, Confessors etc.) and it was pretty interesting to read how the author had grouped the diary entries. Additionally, the book was more than just selected authors. It was also quite an academic treatise on the history of diaries (and those who wrote them), on the trends and patterns of diary-keeping, and on the many situations in which people have written them. 

So, the contents included Samuel Pepys, but also Parson James Woodforde (The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802); of Jerome K. Jerome’s Diary of a Pilgrimage along with the travel diary of 15-year-old Miss Julia Newberry who was dragged across a long tour of mainland Europe with her incredibly rich American mother; the journals of Pope John XXIII and author Annie Dillard… 

Curiously, I was most interested in the diaries completed by people who were imprisoned in some way, physically or mentally, whether fairly or unfairly so. Anne Frank is in there, but so is Hitler’s “master architect”, Albert Speer and his diary, Spandau

(Being a big fan of 1980s English music, I naturally thought of the old group, Spandau Ballet, and wondered if their band name was anything to do with this Speer’s Spandau, but disappointingly, the group name only arose from when a friend of theirs saw it written on a wall in Berlin on a weekend trip. Huh. 

And then digging a little deeper, it turns out that Spandau is the name of an old town near Berlin. The actual prison was there until it was demolished in 1987, after its final prisoner, Rudolf Hess, had died. The prison was demolished to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. Well, well. Now you know.)

Back to the book at hand: there are all sorts of lesser-known diarists here which I’ve noted for further perusal: William Allingham (1824-1889), a rather sad and lonely guy who was on the very edge of the Pre-Raphaelites (such as Tennyson). Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963) wrote ten million words (no exaggeration) who led a very quiet life in Boston, but longed to talk with interesting people. He even put a newspaper ad out that asked “for interesting people to talk” with, each paid 75 cents/hr to tell their stories to old Arthur as the visitor sat in front of a black curtain with Arthur sitting behind it. (Nope. Not weird at all. No sirree bob.)

A female partner to old Arthur would be Eve Wilson, whose words comprise The Notebooks of a Woman Alone (1935). Eve worked on the edge of poverty as a governess, and whose real life seems to echo that of the single middle-aged women who were the protagonists of mid-century authors such as Margaret Forster and Anita Brookner et al. You know – Eve really reminded me Brian Moore’s character in The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (1955). 

So, lots of food for thought in this read and lots of other breadcrumb trails to chase after for future reads. The author seemed to be pretty erudite and witty in the end, and I enjoyed this one. Plus – one more off the old TBR. 

Other diary-related reviews include:

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)

Diary without Dates – Enid Bagnold (1917)

Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield (1930)

The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries – Irene Taylor & Alan Taylor (2001)

The Country Diaries – Alan Taylor (ed.)

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.)