Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971)

I’ve finally found my reading mojo and so have been finishing a few titles which I thought I would review. I’ll start off with this one…

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971, Pulitzer Prize winner).

I do love some Stegner every now and then – typically very well written with true-to-life characters about whom you end up caring for the duration of the read. 

This one, Angle of Repose, has elderly protagonist Lyman Ward researching the life of his grandparents who had both gone to the American West as part of the pioneering mining-for-gold industry. 

Ward is trying to understand his grandparents via these old papers (including letters and diaries) which he has gathered from a local library, and interestingly, this novel is written as a mix of both a straightforward narrative looking back in time (from Lyman to the grandparents) and also as an epistolary novel (in that Stegner includes some slightly-fictionalized diary entries and letters from his grandmother character). 

So, this is the plot and the reader tracks along with Lyman as he ploughs through all this historical paperwork from his family. The reason why Lyman is doing this is fairly hidden until the last third of the novel, but this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book but does clarify a lot of what’s come before when you do learn this. (So, hold tight if you read this. Patience, my friend. It pays off.) 

The novel switches back and forth between his grandparents’ lives and times and Lyman’s current life, where he is now an elderly retired history professor who lives by himself and whose son believes that Lyman should really be living in an assisted living home. The old man is helped by various assistants who come in, and his observations about these people are sharp as a tack, so he’s obviously still got his intellect. It’s his physical body that is failing him, so it’s rather a race against time in some ways. 

What was really so interesting about this novel was the actual story of how Stegner obtained and then utilized the background materials for the historical underpinnings of the story. Let me tell you – it’s a corker… 

You may (or may not!) have heard of a real-life American woman called Mary Hallock Foote who was a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator of pioneer life in the West. She has left behind a bounty of handwritten materials about the early mining life for many Victorian pioneers, and she had the industry connections as well since her husband had been the mine superintendent for some time. Stegner’s two main grandparent characters closely mirror this same lifestyle in the book, although they are not portrayed in a very flattering manner (especially the grandmother).

Stegner, as a real-life English professor at Stanford University, included one of Foote’s stories in his American Literature class that he was teaching in 1946, and a grad student in that same class decided to write his dissertation on Foote. The grad student had learned that Foote had a granddaughter who was living quite close and so this student visited the family with the dual intention of both asking the family for the collection of papers to be donated to Stanford Library and also for using them for his academic work. 

The family gave the grad student permission to use the papers with the understanding that he (the grad student) would publish from their content and also supply the family with typed transcriptions of the actual letters. Years passed with no dissertation, but when the grad student gave up that goal, he passed the transcriptions on to Stegner who took them with him to read over a faculty summer. 

A few years pass and Stegner comes up with the book idea (very influenced by the transcript materials and also by some of the people he knows), and thus Angle of Repose is scribed. By this time, Stegner is familiar with one of Foote’s granddaughters and it is she who gave Stegner the go-ahead to use the family paperwork however he wished. 

The trouble arrived when the rest of the Foote relatives found this out and learned that the plot was very heavily based on Foote’s own life and times, and when you look at the parallels, it’s obvious.

The Foote family had believed that Stegner would follow Foote’s history more closely and give her credit where credit was due. Instead, Stegner really carbon-copies the Foote life but with his own characters and in doing so, ends up being accused of plagiarism. (The book’s introduction states that just over 10 percent of the actual novel uses Foote’s letters in toto but with no credit to the original author.)

Stegner does give his thanks and credit to a J.M. at the start of the novel, writing: 

“My thanks for J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” 

So, it seems to me that both parties were working under varying definitions of what a novel is (or “should be”) and exactly how much Stegner relied on the papers. Perhaps it’s more of a communication problem than anything, because I can’t see this misunderstanding happening nowadays since a legal representative would more than likely be present in a similar situation. 

In the end, Stegner stuck to his guns saying his novel was “based” on the historical papers, but how much is too much? Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee gave him the prize in 1971 (which probably did not help things between Stegner and the family!) 

A number of years later (and before the book’s publication), a scholar received funding to publish Foote’s actual reminiscences and although this was great news for the Foote family, it put Stegner on tricky ground since it would be apparently obvious upon whom his novel’s main protagonist was based upon.

To his credit, Stegner got in touch with the family and offered to change character names and action in the novel (to protect the anonymity of Foote as author), but the family member didn’t want that nor did she want to read the manuscript. So, the printing went ahead…

Another issue that cropped up was that some thought that Stegner co-opted the life of the Victorian female writer. As a privileged white male who worked in a university, there was some umbrage about this…

As for what I thought about the book: I thought it was a really solid straight-forward read. It kept my interest throughout (although there was some wandering in the middle third of the novel), and I did become attached to the central characters (even if I didn’t particularly like them as people). 

I can see why the Foote family was disenchanted with Stegner’s portrayal: the grandma in the book is petulant and immature throughout her ENTIRE life on earth, holding her husband responsible for taking her away from her cultured East Coast friends and the letters which are quoted provide evidence of her small-mindedness and resentment (that NEVER goes away). 

I suppose in Victorian times, marital separation (let alone divorce) was very frowned upon but the couple were out West where laws only played a secondary role in life, so why didn’t she just up-sticks and move back East? And her husband was portrayed as a big dreamer in business without the skills to follow through on his ideas, but Heavens to Betsy – leave him. Instead, there are years of moaning and complaining about the life they lead (which, TBH, does sound hard), but then again, no one has a gun to his (or her) head. 

Apart from the niggling irritation with the couple, the actual writing and descriptions of the Western mining camps and their inhabitants was lovely. Stegner was a great writer – I have no doubts about that. 

I do wonder what he was thinking when he took this Victorian figure, unknown but hallowed by her immediate family, and then twisted her story very slightly (and not always in a positive light). I suppose he thought that he’d given the family the chance to review the manuscript and they had chosen not to, so it was a done deal. 

But don’t let all this drama overshadow the fact that Angle of Repose is truly a good novel. Think of it as an interesting sideline. 

And, I learned that the phrase “Angle of Repose” is from physics and is the actual angle at which material, when it’s piled up in a cone shape, actually stops moving – it reposes. Imagine a pile of sugar – the angle at which it settles and finally stops moving – that’s the angle of repose. 

The title (and its meaning) also opens up another can of worms, as the grandparents live an itinerant life moving from mine to mine — so do they actually reach their own “Angle of Repose”? You’ll have to read to see.

The Family Next Door – John Glatt (2019)

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

From the publisher:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Turpin kids (faces blocked out).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

February 2020: Black History Month TBR Pile

Some of the reading suggestions for BHM…

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m choosing to recognize and celebrate the U.S. Black History Month for February, which means that I step up my ongoing focus on reading POC authors and related topics. (It’s become more of a year-long focus now, but I specifically make an effort to bring attention to POC authors/topics during these weeks.)

I’ve pulled the pile (above) as a collection of titles which fit the bill from my own TBR (plus a couple from the library), and I’m excited to see which ones appeal to me as I go on to read some of them. What’s in the pile? Let’s take a looksie.

(Top to bottom in picture):

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African – Olaudah Equiano/ Gustavus Vassa (NF/auto) 1789
  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans – Mary Gehman (NF/history)
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (F) 2014
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F) 1952 (?). (Read this. Wow.)
  • Colour Bar: A United Kingdom – Susan Williams (NF/bio) 2017
  • They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng et al. (NF/auto) 2015
  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts – William Still (NF/history/bio) 2011
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne: The First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/bio) 2015. In progress.
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F) 2008. Post to come.
  • BlackkKlansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime – Ron Stallworth (NF/auto) 2018. Meh.
  • I was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas – Andrew Waters (ed.) (NF/history/auto)
  • Days of Grace: A Memoir – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (NF/auto) (1993)

The side pile:

  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (NF/history/socio)
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America – Charisse Jones and Kumea Short-Gooden (NF/socio)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson (NF/socio) 2013
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin Diangelo and Michael Eric Dyson (NF/socio/history) 2018
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

As always, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to read ALL of these, but certainly a nice pile to start with. Any titles that you’d recommend?

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.