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.) 

The Best American Short Stories 1999 – Amy Tan (ed.)

file-3I’m usually not the biggest fan of short stories, but I’m making an effort to read them because so many people actually do love them and so I’m trying to see if perhaps my (limited) view could be swayed somewhat. I could be wrong. (Shock. Gasp. 🙂 )

It’s hard to go astray with any of the titles in the book series, “The Best American FILL-IN-THE-BLANK”, usually published each year and edited by a notable author who curates all the selections inside each edition. There are books that celebrate travel writing (see 2000 [Bill Bryson], 2011 [Sloane Crosley] and 2016 [Andrew McCarthy*]), science and nature writing, short stories, and others and although they have a tendency to be heavily rich white male in their offerings (through design or accident), you can usually steer your way through that by your choice of who the book editor is. For example, this one was edited by Amy Tan which, to me, ups the odds of there being a more diverse selection of writings inside.

(It’s not always true to form, and there are some (white male) editors who choose a diverse selection and vice versa, but generally speaking, the older the edition the more likely it is to be a white European-centric volume.)

All that to say, I enjoyed this anthology and Amy Tan’s selections. As with any collected volume of works, there are going to be some hits and misses, but on the whole, this was a good selection of writing and a good read. Tan has curated a collection that’s pretty evenly split between male and female authors, but for some reason, it’s heavily swayed towards white people (16 out of 21 stories had white authors).

This has got me wondering whether this emphasis on white authors is primarily because most of the stories that the guest editor in question is going to read (or find) are those from authors who have already published their work (in literary journals and/or similar).

This seems to be common as many authors are (or have been) caught up in the engine of grad school writing programs (the “publish or perish” syndrome) — students are rewarded by high grades from profs (majority of whom are traditionally older white males) who think “this student writes just like me and it’s awesome!” So it’s like a vicious cycle of some kind and since grades are almost everything in grad school, no one wants to rock their own boat too hard so they stick to the “same old same old” as it’s the safest way to get through class…

Hear me out on this theory (and it’s only a theory): For most people, going to grad school is only possible, really, if you have some money/time to spare, and so I’m wondering if the low diversity numbers are due to the fact that disproportionately high numbers of POC simply do not have the luxury of that choice to attend a grad school with prestigious authorial faculty (even more $$$) and so on up the educational pipeline. Poorly-funded school systems also tend to disproportionately impact minority and under-represented kids (which means that the kids might not have the same academic or other support system)…

I don’t know, but just thought it was interesting to ponder for a while. What do you think?

Back to the book: Diversity-wise, this anthology included work from a Dominican-American, someone who is Chinese-American, an Indian-American, a professorial type from Tibet (now living in the US), and a guy from Bosnia (now also living in the US).) Perhaps I should be wise to remember that the title of the series is the “Best American….” !!

Of the stories that I liked, I thoroughly enjoyed the work of Lorrie Moore (whose work I will be searching for more to read), and then I thought that the others were all a bit same-y in the end, although they were a nice same-y.

Therein lies the biggest problem for me with regard to short stories: since most tend to be generated either during or after going through grad school writing programs, the authors are taught to write in a certain way to get the “A” grades, that certain way being determined by the students’ professors who also have previously also spent their time in the grad school engine and so it’s a big self-feeding circle in the end.

I could be wrong with this pondering, and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the read. I did, especially when I was exposed to very different authors than my usual choices. Perhaps that was what was challenging: that some of these stories were very different in both structure and form than my typical fare. And yet, I’m usually ok with post-modern endings, inventive structural decisions and other experimental offerings. That I finished the whole book would support that I enjoyed the majority of the read. I’m just contemplating what my expectations were in contrast with the final product.

Whatever the reason(s), in the end this was a thoughtful read that led me down plenty of other rabbit holes on-line. It’s always good to learn, and this title certainly helped to expose me to different authors and approaches.

I wonder if you (as the reader) have a similar experience of “same-y” when you read a book of short stories all written by the same author. (Toddles off to the TBR shelves to see what else I have…)

(This title is off the TBR pile. Go me. 🙂 )

  • The very same Andrew McCarthy who acted in John Hughes’ inimitable Breakfast Club from the 1980’s. He’s all growed up now. 🙂 )

The World According to Mister Rogers – Fred Rogers (2003)

rogers_bookThere was a recent confluence of Mister Rogers in life the other day when I happened to pick up a small book of his sayings and also watch a PBS special on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood around the same time. I didn’t grow up with Mister Rogers (although I would have liked to), and didn’t come to him until I was in college, but regardless of how you are/were when you first met him, Mister Rogers was an American hero in many ways.

For those who didn’t grow up in America (or perhaps have access to American-based TV programs), Mister Rogers was a gentle cardigan-wearing children’s television host who was instrumental in changing how TV reached the younger elementary and preschool set to teach them about the world about us. He originally started working for NBC in 1951, but quit when he decided that all the ads on children’s TV programs undermined any educational message that the programs may have had, saying (according to Wiki): “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought that there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”

mister_rogers_feature_2_1050x700Mister Rogers began working at WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station, and developed puppets and music used in his programming, and when he wasn’t working full-time at the TV station, Rogers was studying theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He wasn’t interested in preaching, so upon his ordination, he was charged with continuing his work with children’s television.

Despite the religious background, Mister Rogers only used such biblical nuggets as the Golden Rule (e.g. treat others as you would like to be treated), be kind and other gentle important life lessons, and his programs turned into such an institution for the American kids in the 1960’s onwards through the turn of the century, that he (and his red cardigan) became famous, even getting parodied by Saturday Night Live with Eddie Murphy doing “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood”. In fact, one of Mister Roger’s cardigans is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of America History in DC. 🙂

So, this little book just captures part of Mister Rogers’ philosophy about life and being a good human, aimed at children, yes, but with a lot of relevance for people who are now adults. One of my own particular favorites of his is the following which particularly resonated after the 9/11 bombing:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

For more about the role that Mister Rogers has played in American life, try this Atlantic article. Just remember: “You are special, and so is your neighbor.”

Image result for eddie murphy mister robinson

 

Mini Reading Reviews

eyechart

I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

Catch Up Time…

catch_up

So I’ve been doing some reading and thought I’d do a quick catch up post of mini-reviews for you. Nothing wrong with these books at all – just perhaps don’t have that much to say about them, really. Don’t let that stop you from reading them (except for the Bradbury – I can save you some time there. :-))

A Child in the Forest – Winifred Foley (1974)

A delightful memoir of a childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean with a family close to the poverty line – perhaps poor of money, but rich in other ways (but that’s not much good if you’re cold and hungry though….) Anyhoo, this was a really sweet and poignant collection of autobiographical memories for Winifred Foley, and almost made me cry. Along the lines of Cider with Rosie (pre-blog) but a bit tougher of a childhood, I think. The author has a very sly sense of humor which frequently made me smile.

Farewell Summer – Ray Bradbury (2006)

Having been delighted with Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine , I came across this sequel only to find out (post-read) that it’s actually Book 3 in a trilogy. (Dandelion Wine is number one.) No worries. This still works out of order. It’s a fictional take on a small town group of boys who are coming of age as the summer months come to an end, and there are some really good descriptions here of the long summer days and an ongoing half-serious half-humorous battle between the old men and the young gang. Both groups are aching to stop time (but for different reasons), and it’s this theme that runs through the novel. I adore Dandelion Wine, and consider it to be one of the best autumn books to read at that time of year. I think that this title would also be good to read when the leaves turn. However, no leaves turning here and as I’d also been reading another childhood memoir (but NF), I think that this title suffered in comparison. (Plus there was a very unexpected last chapter which was totally out of the character with the rest of the book. Bit weird.) A very quick read, and one I’ll have to pick up again in a few months. It might be fun to read the whole Green Town Trilogy (as it’s called)…

And by golly, I’m determined to finish Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns this week. It’s been a few weeks on this one, and I just need to devote some solid reading time to it. Also about growing up in a small town up in the Potteries in England (but this is set later on in childhood, really). I’m enjoying it, but just piddling around with this read. More to come.

How’s your reading life coming along?

bookspic

Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

book386

A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_family

A number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

stagecoach_mary
(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA.
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

books1