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.

A different kind of reading…

Last weekend was a longer break than typical since it was Labor Day, which typically signals for many people, that summer is over. (Not by temperatures since around here, we’re still in the 90s during the day, but in terms of the monthly calendar.) Seeing as we didn’t have a lot scheduled, I planned to do some shopping (shoes :-}) and a lot of reading.

(Outcome was successful, although I’m truly dreadful at buying shoes. We’ll see how this pair work out for me! But come on – leopard-skin Keds? How can you go far wrong with those? I’m trying to be on-trend this autumn (for the first time in ages), and apparently, fake leopard is very in. 🙂 )

To the reading: The Superhero had to work on Monday which meant a quiet day in our house (apart from Nova Dog barking at all those people who have the gall to walk by our house without a hall pass). I happened to clean out the magazine rack and in doing so, was reminded of two mags which I’ve had for more-than-enough time to read them. Yesterday was that day. (See pic above for deets.)

The first was a special issue from the New Yorker with a bunch of true crime stories that they had culled from years of earlier issues, and that included the old chestnut from Truman Capote (the first installment of “In Cold Blood”). I haven’t read this since my freshman year in college when I was fresh off the boat from England, so didn’t really remember much of it, but it was such a good read that now I’m interested in reading the entire book by Capote. It was the one of the earliest examples of narrative nonfiction (or longform nonfiction) and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t appreciate it for what it was when I read it back then. Now it’s on the list for the next visit to the library.

Other true crime stories were spread over the last forty years of the twentieth century but I wasn’t really familiar with the crimes they mentioned. Still – overall, a pretty good read. Glad I’ve read it, glad it’s off the pile, but one day later, pretty forgettable. :-}

The other mag that I had pulled from this pile was from a writing conference I attended last year about writing narrative nonfiction. This journal was put out by the sponsoring university and included the year’s best writing (as chosen by judges from the conference). A good selection of pretty diverse nonfiction, but as above, one day later, I can’t really remember any of the individual stories. (I am now worrying whether this says a lot about me as a reader! Maybe I need to start being a lot more intentional when I read!!)

I enjoyed this taste of nonfiction essays and learned a lot about how to structure a similar one should I end up writing something along these same lines. It was a good change of pace from longer reads and fit my Monkey Mind of the other day! Plus – off the pile and out of the house.

Win-win.

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

General Catch-Up…

catch_upIt’s been a busy few days which has included several new lesson plans, two batches of grading, and the normal day-to-day stuff, which helps to explain the silence in this space.

Actually, it also included one of the houses on our street exploding (!) just before we went to bed and so that took a few days before life resumed its normalcy for us. Quite a week. (And honestly – one of the houses five houses away from us literally exploded. You don’t forget that in a hurry.)

However, despite this, I have been reading and writing (although more slowly than usual) and that’s what I thought we’d catch up with today.

I happened to come across Angela Thomas’ debut YA novel called ‘The Hate U Give” whose plot revolves around a young African-American teenager who is in the same car as her (also AfAm) friend when they get stopped for a perceived infraction by a white police officer and the young man gets shot and killed. The novel moves forward in time as the young woman and her community try to deal with this situation with its murky causes.

Although a heavy (and timely) topic, this novel moves along at a fast pace as it deals with the issue of police-related shooting, morality, race, and modern life in a city, and it’s probably going to make one of my Top Ten Fiction Reads this year. For once, the hype is worth it and I recommend that you pick this up at some point soon and then you can judge for yourself. Thomas does a great job of covering the multiple perspectives in such an incident without resorting to usual state of black-and-white thinking, and whether you agree with how the characters act or not, it’s probably going to leave you thinking once you’re turned that last page.

file3I also learned the acronym behind Tupac’s phrase, Thug Life which (according to the author) means The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everyone (or maybe Everything?), meaning that it’s important to look after every person in your community whoever they may be. True that.

Moving on and to give myself a change in pace, I picked up a psychological mystery story, “The Girl Next Door” by Ruth Rendell, which was good fun to read (although oh-so-confusing at first due to playing with time and a lot of characters). I sorted it out in the end and I haven’t read just a mystery for ages, so this was rather fun and read like a hot knife through butter. Now I’m reading through one of America’s Best… series, this one a collection of science and nature from 2011 and edited by the wonderful Mary Roach. Just right for a Monkey Mind…

And then, thinking about a non-complicated plot and also filling in a slot in the Century of Books project that I have going on, I’m also reading the children’s classic, “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome (1930). I haven’t read any of this series before, and although I’m not a sailor and have next-to-no-familiarity with sailing terms, I’m enjoying this quick read of two families of children enjoying their island adventures up in the Lake District of England. (Lots of ginger beer et al.)

With the semester fully underway, there have also been loads of events at the university including an entertaining talk by visiting Ruth Reichl, NYT best-selling non-fiction author and restaurant critic, which was really enjoyable. Plus, it’s play season on campus and we went to watch the one-act plays that students both write and perform. Good stuff.

So, it’s been a busy few weeks, but now we’re in the home stretch of the university term, and then I’m looking forward to some time off from work. What to do, where to go… Those are the questions…

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At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces – Mary Collins and Donald Collins (2017)

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Saw this title somewhere out on-line, and thought it could be interesting so picked it up. It’s a dual-memoir from a mother and her transgender son (just as in the title) and this narrative (actually a series of essays) shows how they went through the journey of Donald choosing to be a male when he had been born a female. (When your outside gender doesn’t match the gender you feel is true to yourself, it’s called gender dissonance, I learned.) Anyway, with the Orangutan’s recent announcement about the military not allowing transgender people to serve any more (*smh*), this book seemed to be pretty timely.

Donald was born a female, but knew early on in his life that he felt more comfortable and authentic as a male. As he got older, these feelings turned into a serious need, so when he was in high school, he started steps to change into a female. He was honest and open with his mother about this plan, and from Donald’s perspective, he was doing everything he could to keep his mother in the loop.

His mother’s perspective, however, was that he was too young to know what he was doing, he might change in the future, and how could he do this to her so she was “losing her daughter”? This memoir is set up as a written dialogue between mother and son, each giving her or his view on how things progressed. The interesting (and rather appalling) detail is that Donald was perfectly fine aligning his outside gender with his inside gender, but his mother comes across as one of the most selfish people on the planet.

Every single one of the mother’s entries is concerned with how she is “losing a daughter” rather than gaining a son, regardless of how this may impact her child. She refuses to use the preferred pronoun for her son, and fights him every step of the way of his transition. It’s hard to believe that someone could be this callous to someone in their family (“it’s all about me”), especially when it’s something as fraught with challenges as changing your whole gender identity. (And that’s all it is, really. People are just aligning their outsides with their identity. It’s not hurting anyone else.)

During this read, I was getting so annoyed with the mother in this autobiographical recounting of events. Donald was well prepared in how he approached his transition, he looped his mum in the plans before, during and after, and yet her entries only recount her “losing a daughter” and not having control over her child any more (if she ever did).

She bemoans how there weren’t any support groups for her and other parents who, according to her, are “grieving their lost child”. There was no mention at all of how her child was brave enough to be true to himself at an early age – it was completely her needs that should have been addressed. Sod Donald and his needs, to be frank.

I am not a parent, nor am I a parent of a transgender child. I’m not LGBTQIA, but I am a strong LGBTQIA ally, and it really unnerved me just how unsupportive this mother was of her only child and his needs. No wonder she had such a hard time with her son transitioning – she refused to consider his perspective, and was very resistant to using correct terms with his new identity. (Not really “new”. He was being true to himself.)

If this book is fairly representative of how such transitions occur in lots of other families, it’s pretty distressing as the child is already going through enough, if you ask me. I would hope that, by now, more families are better educated on the issue, and that the child in question can now receive the vital support that they need at this time.

On the other hand, the trans son, Donald, handled his transition like an adult and like a champ. Perhaps it’s easier if you’re the one who is going on that journey as you have known your thoughts your whole life and probably have been thinking about this for a while, internally, so it’s not a “sudden” event when it’s announced.

Perhaps that what Donald and his mother didn’t have was an honest communication growing up. (How could they when she refused to honor his request for a new name and gender when he was a teenager? That can’t have been a big surprise for her. Who knows, though?…)

This was a provocative read, for the most part, and covered a world with which I was not that familiar. I don’t know anyone close to me who is transgender, but I am certain that if they were, they would have my 100% support in this endeavor. So long as everyone is of age and consenting, then go for it.

Perhaps that is the strength of this book: that it shows how one family traveled along that path and comes out in the end. I must admit that the mother must be braver than I to show herself, warts and all, in this light as she shows how she would not back down on her idea of “losing a daughter”.  For goodness’ sake, give your child the respect, support, and latitude to be who they are so that they can be happy. It’s not all about you all the time.

Kudos to Donald for writing about this experience. Kudos to the mother for being so honest, as well, I suppose, but I’m afraid I’m more in Donald’s corner on this issue.

An interesting read overall.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit (2016)

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The blogosphere has been rather on fire about this short book of essays by the eloquent and passionate Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is an activist for a wide variety of social justice issues, and this quick read is a balm for the soul in terms of how to deal with 45 in the White House.

It’s not a quick fix recipe book, but does have wise words for those who have been impacted by the ascendancy of 45 and his wolf pack, and how to help affect long-term change. If, like me, you’re a tad bit overwhelmed by the sudden 180 degree change in domestic and foreign policies which veer widely every time you wake up (it seems), Solnit has some wise words about looking at change in a long-term view and reminding the reader that all long-time societal impacts are usually composed of loads of small changes happening over a longish amount of time. You might not see the impact but small changes add up.

It’s rather like the analogy of the starfish:

One day on a lonely beach, one person saw that another person was throwing beach-stranded starfishes back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” that person asked.

The starfish rescuer responded, “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea so that they can continue to live.”

The original person said, perplexed, “But there are millions of starfish. How does throwing one starfish back in the sea save the day?”

The starfish thrower responded, “It makes a big difference to that one particular starfish…”

🙂

 

Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?

Browsings – Michael Dirda (2015)

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A glorious and exuberant tour of a life steeped in books, Michael Dirda’s Browsings is a balm for the literary soul. Enough of such hyperbole, I say. But this was a good book, and Dirda is like having a very literate friend who seems to have read just about everything. Any time you read some Dirda, your TBR list is going to lengthen with books and authors who you didn’t even know existed.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning book review columnist who has written for a lot of elite pubs (including WaPo and NYT). He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature (including Mediaeval poetry) and yet writes in an inclusive yet scholarly manner. Not having an enormous background in Mediaeval poetry (and similar), I must own up to not being familiar with about half of the titles that he writes about, but he writes about these books in such an accessible way that you don’t mind. I think this is quite an achievement – that someone with such an academic background can make poets of the Middle Ages seem appealing is not for the faint-hearted.

“None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore; maybe try something a little unusual, a little different, and then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on – be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly unashamedly promiscuous…”

This book is a collection of a year’s worth of book review columns that Dirda had put together for The American Scholar, and ranges across every kind of book there is. Having a Ph.D. from Cornell, Dirda has taught literature at the university level, including one about the “Boy’s Own” kind of adventure books from 1860-1930, a few of which look appealing. (To see the type of books that he suggests for interested readers, see my review of The 39 Steps by John Buchan [1915] here.)

I may be going overboard in my gushing his praise, but I loved this read and I think you may as well. Don’t be put off if you’re not well grounded in long-forgotten esoteric titles – this will be happy hunting ground for you, I promise. Enjoy!

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America – Thomas King (2012)

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“While the hardware of civilization (iron pots, blankets, guns) was welcomed, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – original sin, universal damnation, atonement – was not and Europeans were perplexed, offended and incensed…”

This was a fascinating read about the troubling history of Native Americans in both the U.S. and Canada and written by an eloquent English professor who is also Cherokee (and Greek, as it so happens) so it was a perspective that was very unusual for me. It was also so interesting especially after having learned so much about the U.S. historical background of African-Americans last month. There are a lot of overlaps unfortunately – not the same, but definitely some issues in common.

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

It was also interesting as I happen to live in West Texas which was/is the large original home for the Apaches, the Comanche, and the Arapaho, and so our local history is peppered with references to battles and treaties developed throughout time. (It must be added that the history tends to reflect a very one-sided perspective of things… Guess which one?)

(If you’re curious to know more about the Indian Nations of Texas, this is a good introductory site from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s much more complicated than a John Wayne movie, let me tell you.)

This title was actually more of a collection of thoughtful essays with the common theme of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the U.S.

Goodness gracious me – how this group has been mistreated by governments over the years. Coming as it does through the author’s eyes, it’s not a straight history but more of a conversation over coffee with the author, and I think that this worked really effectively as you, the reader, were exposed and immersed in the anger and frustration of the author as he reflects over the events.

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One of the Native Americans at a local tribal celebration here in West Texas.

Essays covered a wide spectrum from how the early settlers set treaties with a particular tribe (and then broke them very easily) and this was a thread throughout the whole collection, really. It was tough to read the endless broken agreements over the years, and knowing this now, it’s more understandable to me how some of the Native American nations are mired in poverty, unemployment and other social ills.

One of the essays covered how Hollywood used the Native American and created a particular image for its own ends. According to the author, between 1894-2000, Hollywood made more than 300 movies featuring Indians (an accepted term for the author) as characters but rarely using a Native American as the actor. Producers were seeking “real” Indians and “authentic” Indian culture. To get a picture of the most frequent image of Native Americans for Hollywood, think of the well-known sculpture, “The End of the Trail” by James Earl Fraser in 1915. (See below.)

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

Other tidbits:

  • At one point, Canada produced a dollar coin that featured a totem pole with a raven in its design. Some of the Indian groups viewed this design as very insensitive and called this the “Death Dollar” as the raven is a sign of death for some tribes.
  • Will Rogers (U. S. actor/satirist) was a Cherokee, but in all his films, he never once played an Indian. (Compare with the painful effort that Johnny Depp did in “The Lone Ranger”.)
  • Re: the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the stars in the pavement project): there are more cartoon characters and dog actors represented in this than there are Indians. There are only two stars for actors who were selected to play an Indian character, and one of those was actually Sicilian.
  • There are more than 600 individual and recognized tribes in Canada and more than 550 nations in the U.S.
  • There were two main foci to “handle” the Indians in the early years: Extermination or assimilation.
    • Extermination of Native peoples was “acceptable” due to the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (i.e. “this new land is meant only for us” [i.e. Christians]). It was justified by the concept of “natural laws” and “survival of fittest” (twisting of Darwin’s evolution idea which was pretty new at that time).
    • Assimilation: Indians were seen as “savages” who had “no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language and lacking civilized manners”. White people (and mostly religious groups) saw the savages as needing to be saved from themselves and made into the image of white people (or how they saw themselves). There was no compromise.
  • The crux of the problem, according to the author (and many others) was land as Will Rogers said: “Buy land. They ain’t making more of the stuff.”
  • King notes that land was “the defining element of aboriginal cultures” whereas for white people, land was only a commodity which had value only for what you can take from it or for what you can get for it.

So – this was a powerful book that was really well written (although I would have like a bibliography). It wasn’t a scholarly book with footnotes or anything (and very openly reports that it’s not at the start of the book) , so through that lens, it really worked as a perspective of someone who has been in the trenches and knows of what he speaks. It was a fascinating look into Native Americans and their history.

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One of the Native Americans at a recent tribal celebration in Lubbock, Texas.

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.