Summer’s Reading…

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Well, let’s see. Last summer, there was quite a bit of reading and quite a bit of other stuff (which is to say everything that’s not reading!). For my first time through a faculty summer, I found it to be an enjoyable and relaxing experience (although I might rethink the “taking a class + teaching a class” paradigm for next year).

In lieu of a book-by-book-review post, I thought I might just hit the highlights of the titles that I did read. That way, you get the cream of the crop and I get to catch up. Win-win for all!

Fiction was a pretty good haul overall. One or two stinkers, but I won’t mention those. Good thing about most of this is that they were off the TBR and therefore, are now out of the house. (Just in time for the FoL Library Sale that’s coming up…) 🙂

Did a flurry of reading two books by Nina Stibbes (whose book, Love, Nina, I had loved on an earlier read). These were both solid Stibbes’ efforts: The Man at the Helm was about how two teen daughters are trying to find a new husband for their newly divorced mum with varying levels of success, and the second read was “Paradise Lodge” (no blog post) about a young teen working her first job at a retirement home in England. Both very British in setting and tone, and thus fit the bill for me very well.

(This is our off year for going home to England [i..e. unlikely that we’ll get there by the end of December], so instead, I’ll read some Stibbes. Funny, relevant, and just like hanging out with my own family over there!)

Read the very lovely title, “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, an Aussie author. An easy (but still enjoyable) read with a plot that revolved around a man who lives a very controlled life (rather similar to an Aspie and/or OCD) and how he wants to find himself a girlfriend with the end goal of getting married.

Using spreadsheets and questionnaires, the guy starts the search only to meet a young woman who is the opposite of predictable and detailed. How does this process go? You’ll have to read it, but if you know any Aspies in your life (diagnosed or not), then you’ll enjoy the story. Funny without being at all mean. (I’m on the lookout for the follow-up title now. I’m curious how the story evolves!)

Then lined up some multicultural titles with a short fiction anthology, “Mixed” (from authors who are of mixed descent and how that impacts their lives) – edited by Chandra Prasad and left me lots to think about. Then, some fiction by the oh-so-talented Paule Marshall (this one called “Timeless People, Chosen Place” about the culture clash of a white academic research team on an unspecified Caribbean island community). No blog post, but very good, as per.

Read some Colm Toibin whose writing I happen to love. Set in Ireland and usually pretty domestic in setting (and revolving around family), “Nora Webster” (no blog post) was a really good read. (Plus it was a cold weather setting which was nice in Texas summer).

For non-fiction, I read some corker titles. I travelled to the moon and back with “Moondust” by English journalist Andrew Smith (no blog post). This title searches for the remaining U.S. astronauts who have seen the earth from the moon (a number that is reducing as the astronauts get older). Smith is trying to answer the general question: “What do astronauts do/how do they cope when they’ve been to the moon and then have to live on earth for the remainder of their lives? How do they handle the ordinariness of earth life after having traveled to space?”

An absolutely fascinating read (whether you’re into space or not). Smith is a great writer with a dry sense of humor and tracks down the pilots while delving into the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to watch the moon landing, but I was only six years old so didn’t actually have a thorough understanding of the whole thing. I understand a lot more now, and realize that it wasn’t just about getting to the moon first.

Read a harrowing title by Luis Alberto Urrea called “By the Lake of the Sleeping Children”  about the people who live in the community that borders San Diego and Mexico. It’s actually a rubbish dump, but people live their whole lives in this awful place. I was astounded that this would happen so close to the Land of Milk and Honey, but it was true (probably still true).

However, despite the grim subject, Urrea is a gifted journalist who treats every one of his characters with dignity and respect while informing the reader of how truly hard their lives can be. (This was a bit of a hard read for me.)

Changing tack a bit (!), I finished up a biography of Princess Diana by Sally Bedell Smith (whose other work about the Queen and Prince Charles I’ve also read). Closer to a long People article than an academic treatise, it was still an interesting read and yet, even when you finish, you’re still no closer to the answers than before you started reading it. Interesting though.

Staying on the topic of royalty, I tracked down a title called Victoria and Abdul (about the “scandalous” [for the time] relationship between Queen Victoria and an Indian servant she called the Munshi. Fascinating reading and took me down all sorts of rabbit holes for a few days after that. I wonder if the accompanying film is any good…

Did some traveling around the world via some titles: Canada guidebooks (where I visited avec la famille), and also an old classic travelogue about England in the 1930’s: “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton. Adored this read, both because it was like going back in time and also because it is one of my mum’s favorite titles. Just loved it – like a traveling “Cider with Rosie.”

Speaking of going back in time (but this visit to a startling different place) was my read of  the graphic novel, “The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks and illustrator Canaan White (no blog post but trust me, it’s good), which is a fictional account of the (true) harrowing tale of the 369th Infantry unit of the U.S. Army who were the only African-American soldiers to travel to France during WWI.

This unit of soldiers was given exactly the same (and sometimes more) responsibilities as the white U.S. soldiers, but then, upon the unit’s return stateside, the soldiers were expected to slide right back into the segregated racial divide that was life in America in the early twentieth century. Another rather harrowing read about a topic of which I was woefully unknowing, but important just the same.

And then I started my second all-the-way-through read of the AP Style Book (as needed for work and class). I’m getting there, but have learned to expect very little logic in its rules. :-}

And now, I’m reading a library loan called “The Book of Books” (from the PBS TV series and the Great American Read project) which covers 100 titles that are popular in America. I’m not sure who chose them (or how they were chosen), but it’s an interesting and diverse list of books ranging (so far) from “Gilead” (Robinson) to “Catcher in the Rye” (of course) to “Pride and Prejudice” to James Baldwin and the “Fifty Shades” series (!), so it’s difficult to know what’s coming next from page to page. Its actually really fun to turn the page and see…

Lovely production values and pretty diverse in fiction titles, so enjoying a browse through that. Plus, it’s fun to see which titles I’ve read and which I’ve not… (I seem to have missed that whole related PBS TV series though… Did anyone else see it? Is it worth tracking down?)

And now class has been back in session, the slightly manic first week is over, and I’m developing loads of PowerPoint presentations since I’m teaching a lecture class for the first time this fall. It’s all fun and games though, and I’m very happy to be back in the classroom again!

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Empty Mansions – Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (2013)

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Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. 

An intriguing non-fiction about the Clark family who were a real rags-to-riches frontier family led by a ruthless businessman who traveled out to the hinterlands to find a better life through discovering and then selling copper and then growing his wealth even more through a series of savvy (and lucky) business deals. The patriarch, W. A. Clark, became nearly as wealthy as the Rockefellers and ended up being a controversial US Senator (with a bribery scandal to his name), a builder of railroads and the founder of Las Vegas.

But who was he really? Who was his French wife Anna, and what about his family?

With this background of privilege, the narrative traces the story of the Clark family from a log cabin in Pennsylvania to elegant Fifth Avenue in New York, from a one-room house to one of the largest houses in NYC with 121 different rooms for a family of four, and then in reverse when the only surviving member of the family chooses to seclude herself in an ordinary hospital room for twenty years.

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(Above) – Huguette (in white) stands with her father and elder sister.

It’s a really strange story but it’s fascinating, mainly because there are so many questions that still remain and no one seems to know the truth. As the youngest daughter, Huguette lived a life of extreme privilege far removed from the typical American life that surrounded her.

She had little formal schooling, but became an expert on Japanese culture; she owned Degas and Renoir paintings but without a successful painting career; she bought and owned a never-played Stradivarius violin which she rarely looked at and grew a large collection of antique dolls worth millions of dollars and with houses of their own to store the collection.

But with so many people sworn to secrecy about Huguette’s life, this is an NF based on rumors and family lore more so than actual fact. It’s also heavily based on memories that surround a $300 million fortune to be inherited and so it’s very difficult to know the actual truth of these events. Everyone has a stake in their perspective and so who’s to know what really occurred.

When Huguette retired from outside life and entered her hospital room, rarely to leave again despite being healthy and able-bodied, why was that? When Huguette gave $30 million to her personal nurse towards the end of her life, was she being manipulated by the nursing staff and the greedy hospital hoping for a “generous donation”? Why did she pull herself away from everyone she knew to choose to watch The Smurfs in a darkened room? Was she mentally ill or was she being blackmailed? So many questions!

So, this was an interesting read, although I did have to run it through the filter that it was co-authored by her great-nephew who trod very carefully when it came to the honest truth (what little there was). (Sort of a “Don’t annoy grandma or you’ll get left out of the will” idea.) In the end, this book was a mix of fact and fiction and although it rather veered towards sycophancy towards the last third of the book, it was still an interesting read.

How much is true? How much is Memorex? Who is to know, but it was interesting to learn about this filthy rich but slightly strange family.

 

Traveling to the nation’s capital…

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Abraham Lincoln monument in DC.

So, if you’re in any way connected with the U.S. education system, you will be probably be familiar with the cheers and hoorahs that occur from both the students and the teachers when it’s time for Spring Break… Thus, it was mine the other week, and so I jetted off to meet my lovely mum in the nation’s capitol, Washington D.C.

Many moons ago and in an earlier life, I lived and worked in D.C., but I haven’t been back there for anything longer than a weekend since then, and so it was rather a Rip-van-Winkle experience as we walked around the Mall and environs. I remembered bits and pieces of long-ago events, but for the most part, my time there is lost in the fog of youthful times. (Probably a good thing, as well.)

Mum has not really visited the East Coast of the U.S. that much, although she’s very well-travelled in other regions, and so we chose D.C. as being quite a central place for us to meet, she flying in from London and me from Texas. My mum is a trooper for traveling long distances, but I also wanted to choose a destination that wouldn’t take a long and uncomfortable journey for her to reach since she’s getting a bit up there, age-wise. (She can still walk me into the ground re: stamina, but you know what I mean.) We had tried to hook up with me, my twin sister, and mum, but the differing Spring Break dates between the college where my twin sis teaches and the one at which I teach meant that was a no-go this year.

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This pic was taken at the Museum of American History and was included in an exhibition of the history of immigration to the U.S. This was the recommended way to talk with foreigners getting ready for the spoken English exam. How are you, my alien friend? 🙂

So – to the travel. Flying there was uneventful, thank goodness, although I did end up traveling whilst I was wearing a big medical leg brace since I’m still healing from the ankle surgery last December. Not to worry. I packed quite lightly (But. Must. Do. Better. Next. Time.), and having the leg brace, cumbersome though it was, meant that I finally got to ride the airport carts and get early boarding for prime seating since I’m walking at a top speed of a tortoise right now. No worries.

Everyone was extremely kind and understanding about it, and I have nothing but good things to say about traveling with United. (Note: It was impossible for us to get a cart or wheelchair at Houston Airport for unknown reasons and so we ended up walking 40-something gates or we were going to miss our connection, but moving on from that… The other stuff was great.)

My mum had landed in DC the day before I arrived and already had the hotel sussed out so that my late arrival went smoothly and we woke up the next morning ready to up and at them, tourist-style. (You just never know how these things are going to go when you book a hotel blind, amirite?)

I’d researched a rather vague itinerary prior to the trip, and I highly recommend that you do the same (although perhaps a little more detailed) if you travel to D.C. It’s a huge city, and there are approximately fifty billion museums and other cool places to visit, so it’s good to have a plan of some sort. We were interested in a mix of museums, art galleries, and other places, and with mum getting older and me in my leg brace, we chose the walking-intense National Mall to start off when we were fresh and pretty rested.

It’s a lot of walking if you want to see the Lincoln monument, the Reflecting Pool, the Vietnam War Memorial, and other iconic sights, and although there were the occasional (and slightly puzzling) DC Circulator buses that you could hop on to, the four-day passes that we bought for the Metro didn’t work on these buses, so there was quite a bit of faffing about with that until we worked it out.

The National Mall is also a food and drink desert (i.e. there are very few options for lunch, coffee or just a sit down out of the cold), so be prepared. You could buy a very over-priced ice cream, I think, but apart from that, there’s nada that we could find. Caveat emptor and all that.

So Mum and I walked past quite a few of these, hoping to catch the cherry blossoms that line that reflecting pool, but there’d been a hit of cold weather which had delayed their opening up. (You can follow the progress of the cherry blooms at this website.) Not to worry, it was still pretty with all the green buds out, and it was great to walk around in a pedestrian-friendly and safe environment with cool temperatures. (We’d just missed snow, thank goodness.) So we strolled up the Mall, and then came across the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I’d skim-researched on-line about tickets to enter etc., and the guide book had mentioned that you could buy tickets ahead of time or there were some walk-ins available on the day. This is not quite accurate (as there were no available walk-ins), and so if you’re heading for DC and wanting to pop into this museum, get your tickets 1-2 months ahead of time. Tickets are for a timed-entry to prevent crowds overwhelming the building, so it was well organized, but you just couldn’t walk-in as the guide book suggested. (Note to self for next time.)

Just up the street were some more treasures so all was not lost. We visited the National Archives, and the very intriguing National Museum of American History (which is really interesting and seems to contain everything else that they couldn’t put into one of the other Smithsonian museums). Honestly, it’s a fascinating hodge-podge of topics, times and people, and we could have stayed there for hours.

Still, time was a-ticking so we hopped across the street to run through the National Gallery of Art to see what gorgeous pieces that they had there. One really unexpected display was a small indoor courtyard that was stuffed with the most gorgeous and prolific flowers… Just beautiful and very unexpected in an art museum…

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By that time, we were running out of time and out of energy, so we whipped by the White House (didn’t stop as not a big fan of the current inhabitant), and then came back to the hotel. We were staying in a DoubleTree just outside the city in a place called Crystal City (close to the Pentagon etc.) and only a ten-minute subway ride from downtown. Cheaper, less traffic, more conference-focused hotel which was lovely and quiet.

Plus, they had the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve ever encountered which was a big plus. (Say hello to Tyrone when you next see him. Great guy, and deserves a raise as he went waaay over and above in his customer service when we’d just missed the shuttle.)

The next day featured more of the museums at the other end of the Mall: the Library of Congress (with the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights et al.), a quick visit to the U.S. Capitol (where our politicians sometimes do their work), and then back for a rest.

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Points to consider when traveling to DC:

  • Check which museums you are interested in attending and see if you can get your (free) tickets ahead of time. (Sometimes having tix is the only way to get in and with no tix = no admittance.)
  • If you’d like to tour the U.S. Capital itself, you can send an email to your local Representative person, and they can arrange to have an intern give you a tour of the inner workings of the place. We chose not to do this due to the current tenant.
  • There’s a pretty decent clean and cheap cafeteria in the basement of the Capital building if you’re dying for a coffee or lunch etc. Open to everyone, including large groups of school children who were, I have to say, very well behaved. (Thank you, teachers and chaperones.)
  • At the start of your trip, take a photo (with your phone) of the subway system so you’ll always have this with you. (Take it quite hi-res so then, if you have to enlarge it to see a particular station, you’ll be able to read it ok. We had to enlarge quite often to read the map.) The subway stations can be a little hidden away on the streets at times, but you’ll learn to recognize the grey columns with the big M on them after a while. They’re not massively obvious though, so there’s quite a bit of searching around for them sometimes.
  • Along those lines, take photos of the guidebook pages talking about the places that you’re interested in visiting that day. (Guidebooks can be heavy and dense to carry around, and honestly, how many pages are you really going to need that day?)
  • At the Metro, it’s cheaper to buy the reusable/reloadable plastic passes for multiple days if you’re going to be there for more than 48 hours. These tickets are discounted and you only have to carry that one plastic pass for never-ending journeys for that one holiday. Plus they are reloadable, and transfer from person to person in most cases. Just know that the Metro pass doesn’t work on the buses.
  • People in DC are really helpful and courteous. There are the occasional mentally ill homeless folks as there are in any metropolitan areas, naturally, but keep your eyes peeled and be aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine.
  • Know that visits to museums are going to take much longer than you think so you might want to be flexible for your daily itinerary with regard to the number of places you visit, and where they are located. (Some have pretty long lines to get in.)
  • Take snacks and water bottles with you when you leave the hotel to go tourist-ing. Sometimes you’ll be in a food desert (i.e. the Mall) wandering around with no hope in sight, and then, my friends, is when you’ll be glad of that energy bar and the drink. Plus – if you start off with an empty water bottle, there are loads of water fountains for free refills. (This is even more important if you go in the summer months when the humidity is about 1000% and the temps are high.)
  • Unless you’re a young ‘un, plan to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or other drink) fairly regularly, otherwise all the walking can turn your trip into the Bataan Death March pretty quickly (especially when you’re not sure where the closest metro is).
  • It’s fine to ask people questions about where you are, where the Metro is etc. DC is a working city, and the majority of the locals are fairly happy to point you in the right direction (unless they’re in a stinking hurry in which case you wouldn’t ask them, right?)
  • Try to avoid getting on the Metro at rush hour (just as you would in any other large city). More expensive, more crowded. Much more relaxed if you can travel either before or after those hours.
  • Stay flexible with your plans. The odds are that you will probably get lost at some point, or can’t find the Metro or your destination, or just get fed up and want to go back to the hotel for a nap. It happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failed tourist.

Use your City-Smarts, and DC is a blast.

P.S. I did do some reading of some earlier work of Mary Roach (My Planet) whilst I was traveling, but it was a collection of her lifestyle columns from a newspaper, and trust me, it wasn’t her best work. Let me save you some time and money by saying that your life will continue if you don’t read this one. 🙂

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The amazing Library of Congress in DC… Slightly posher than my own local branch… 🙂

The Negro Motorist Green-Book – Victor Hugo Green

The_Negro_Motorist_Green_BookSo, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.

Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.

Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.

AfAm_car_ownersOriginally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.

The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦

This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?

  • ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)

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Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (2014)

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I’m always really curious about the social history of places and times: how did people live then? Under what conditions? What did they do each day, and what did their houses look like?

With that said, it’s little wonder that I really enjoyed a recent read of historian Judith Flanders’ work called The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How our Houses Became our Homes which covers exactly that topic, huge as it is.

Flanders is a social historian with several titles to her credit, including Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (see review here), The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (see review here), and one or two in the TBR pile (The Invention of Murder and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London). Obviously, I enjoy her writing and what she has to say…

The idea that “home” is a special place, a separate place, a place where we can be our true selves, is too obvious to us today that we barely pause to think about it. But… “home” is a relatively new concept.

As usual, this book is so chock-full of interesting (to me) points, I ended up with a bullet list of curious facts, so hopefully, that will work for you.

  • The concept of having a “chairman/woman” on a committee or in a company stems from the fact that early in history, furniture was really expensive and out of reach for many families. If they did have enough disposable income to buy something, they might only have the cash to buy one chair (instead of a set).* Thus, if you review early paintings of domestic settings (such as in the seventeenth century), you may notice that a family may only have one chair in the room. As this was typically the father’s or husband’s place (since he was considered the most important person in the group), he got to sit in the chair. Thus, the chairman. 🙂
  • Bedding was a huge chunk of a family’s budget when starting out. For a family in the 18th century, there are records that show they paid more than a quarter of their total household income for bedding and furniture, so it was a huge investment for the average family.
  • Beds usually only had flour sacks of hay (or straw) as the mattress, and families sometimes put up to five flour sacks of hay on top of each other to give more padding. (I’m wondering if this is where the origin of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale came from…)
  • Families were all up on the latest household fashions. For example, pendulum clocks were invented in 1657. Two decades after that, almost no Dutch families owned a similar clock. Four decades after its invention, nine out of ten families owned one. And thus the world turns…
  • In 1727 in Bath, it was quite common for a middle class family to own a table, cooking pots, and a mirror, but curiously, the great majority of these same households didn’t own a cup or even knives and forks.
  • For middle class pioneer families in the US during this same time, they lagged behind their British counterparts in terms of household goods: it was very common for pioneer families out west to live in a similar fashion to the lifestyle of English families one century earlier. (Couldn’t exactly go shopping very often and didn’t have much disposable income.)
  • The history of cups and saucers: When tea was first imported to UK, the Chinese style of tea-cup with no handle was fine for how the tea was served (lukewarm). However, when the Brits started to like their tea really hot (as now), the previously handle-free cups were unsuitable and thus, handles were added to the cup. When Brits started adding milk to the tea, there was a need for a bigger cup, and when sugar came into the pic, tea drinkers needed a small spoon to put the sugar into the drink, so thus teaspoons. Teaspoons led to saucers, as a place to rest your spoon whilst you drank your tea. Huh.
  • In the Middle Ages, guests were expected to bring their own knives and forks (instead of the hosting family providing them). They were considered as personal items. Knives were originally round-ended, and thus one could not spear your food to eat it. Instead, forks were developed to spear your food once you’d cut it with your knife. Most middle class people just ate with a knife and a spoon which they would bring with them when they traveled.
  • The British Navy refused to accept use of forks until 1897.
  • Seventeenth century England houses commonly only had one fireplace in one room, and heat was seen as a luxury more than a necessity. (What were they thinking? Have you been to England in December and January? Brrrr.)

And there’s so much more, that if this type of social history whets your whistle, I think that you’ll like Flanders and her work. Plus – the bibliography is lengthy and I added quite a few new titles to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read, and now I’m very grateful for central heating. 🙂

* When Superhero and I were young marrieds, we only had enough money to buy a dining room table. (We didn’t have enough to buy the matching chairs, so for quite a few months, we only had two non-matching dining table director’s chairs.) The next Christmas, we saved up and got the matching set. Baby steps, amirite?

Added for reference:

If you like this sort of book, here are some other domestic/social history books that I’ve read in case you’re looking to add to the ol’ TBR pile. (Obvs, I like Flanders!):

Texas Quilts, Texas Women – Suzanne Yabsley (1986)

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Abstractions of battles and hardships or colorful events and personalities of the past are rendered on the quilt’s surface, but its real meaning is the spirit of the maker.

Prowling the library shelves one Saturday, I happened to come across some local history/ fabric art titles, and this volume jumped out and in my hands. After it sitting in the pile for a few days, its turn for reading finally came, and this was a good one.

Now, I’m not a person who quilts. I am not really a sewing person, but I enjoy cross-stitch and knitted during the teenaged years, and I adore looking at fabric arts. Combine “fabric arts” with pioneer Texas history, and we were off to the races.

As the title pretty much confirms, this was about Texas history combined with the history of women and quilts, and it was really fascinating.

Living in an area with its own history of the early pioneers, I frequently see reminders of early pioneer life: the land surrounding our city still resembles the same view that pioneers must have had when they first arrived on the South Plains, and there are several historical markers and a large university-related museum which focus on these early years with an emphasis on how the early (white) ranchers lived in dugouts and other wooden structures through the years, and much of our regional population here are descended from pioneer families.

(Our city wasn’t incorporated until the 1920’s, but there were plenty of First People who nomadically passed through this area, naturally, but the actual formal formation of the city came later. It’s rather a contentious history, I’m afraid.)

So – to the book itself. I ended up making a list of notes as I read through, and so that’s what you guys are getting. Hope that works. J

  • If you’ve ever seen a cowboy film that has the actual details historically correct, you may have seen cowboys on horses with a bedroll tucked behind them to the back of the saddle. That bedroll is called a “suggan”, and was usually a heavy hand-made quilt made from old wool pants, jeans or khaki pants (usually part of the trouser leg as that received the least wear). (Also included “tailor squares”, but not sure what they are. Anyone?)
  • Suggans were usually very rugged construction, and usually the cloth pieces are sewn around the edges (similar to a traditional quilt), but suggans have one big stitch (with the threads not cut off) in the middle of each square. This was a quick way to finish the quilt, and to make sure that it could withstand cowboy life on the prairie. (Strangely enough, I saw exactly one of these in a TV interview later on that same day, and squealed as I could now recognize it as a suggan. It’s the little things.)
  • Quilts rather slid from public popularity during the American equivalent of Victorian times, but when WWI occurred, quilt-making came back to the fore with the campaign slogan: Save the Blankets for the Boys Over There (1917). In 1918, WWI was still going on, but now the U.S. was deeply involved, and so the government used most of the country’s wood supply for commercial use, and instituted “Heatless Mondays”. (This makes me wonder if Paul McCartney’s vegetarian campaign slogan of “Meatless Mondays” was influenced by this saying…)

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  • Texas had its first female governor in the 1930’s: Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson. (Hmm. Going to have to look at this. I thought that there had only been Ann Richards, but it seems there is another contender. Good.)
  • According to the author, quilt-making is both an individual art and a group project, depending on where one is in the process. These are the steps:
    • Step One: Making the top of the quilt. Usually an individual project involving selecting the fabric and creating whatever design s/he wants to sew with the fabric pieces.
    • Step Two: Place both the (now-finished) quilt top piece on top of the filling (batting?) and the bottom sheet, and then put the quilt into the quilting frame. (Usually a large wooden frame that holds the layers of the quilt together so that the edges can be sewn shut and the pieces joined.

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  • This frame quilt (see above image) was large in size, and since most of the early pioneer homes were rather small (think Little House on the Prairie), the quilt frames were on a pulley system so that the quilt-in-progress could be lifted up to the ceiling to get it out of the way for day-to-day life. It was also a popular social occasion in rural areas (as you can see from the happy expressions of the people in the photo above). 🙂 I’m kidding.
  • Quilting bees are small groups than quilting groups which are smaller groups than quilting guild(s). Huh. (I’m guessing, but I think the bee reference is to do with the idea of bees being very busy? Not sure. Just made that up just now.)
  • Other cultures have quilting as well: the African-American culture has a quilting tradition, Mexico (and remember that Texas is really close to Mexico geographically so there was lots of inter-cultural influences) had colchas bordados (or embroidered blankets), and the Navajo made quilts using vertical stands as opposed to the horizontal ones.
  • Britches quilts were made out of the unused parts of trousers when the seat of the trousers got too worn to wear. Recycle, repurpose, reuse. 🙂

 

Book (DK Eyewitness Series) – (1993)

As I’ve mentioned before (see here about cowboys and also a read about sports (but no blog post for that one)), I’ve become a big fan of the DK Eyewitness books over the past couple of years.

Although categorized as a kid and YA book, I’ve found that each book in this series is a super way to be introduced to a topic in a manageable manner. This is supported by the fact that each book has a fantastic graphic design approach to the subject, and actually, by the time I’ve finished reading one of these titles, I feel as though I have been wandering around a really well curated exhibition at a museum. I have always learned something new by the end, and it’s just been an overall interesting experience. So – yes. High praise for the book series.

This particular title jumped out at me when I was strolling past some library shelves, and I loved reading it just as I have loved reading the other titles. Called, very simply, “Book”, this edition covers the history of books, of writing, of language, and of any other topic that you can link with the history of the printed word, and it does so in a concise and graphically pleasing way that it was a pleasure to read and learn along the way.

Roman Tablet with Inscription

Because there were so many nuggets of knowledge in this title (just like the other titles), I ended up taking a few notes and so thought that this bullet format would do the job for this review.

  • When the Roman alphabet was first used, it originally wrote from right to left. It was only after a few years of usage that it was changed to the left to right format as we use nowadays in the various Western languages.
  • Each letter in most of the examples of Roman writing has been hand carved in stone, and each letter is designed to fit inside an invisible square or circle to help keep its uniformity and so each character stays the same size.
  • Romans used mathematical compasses (like you used in HS perhaps) to keep the circles all the same size, and sometimes, if you look closely at some Roman writing, you can spot the small hole in the center of the letter from when the stone carver use the point of the compass as a guide.
  • The majority of Roman writing is in capitals as they were easier to carve with the tools available. Each letter was drawn onto the stone surface with chalk, then gone over with paint and then the carver just followed these thick and thin lines to make the writing permanent.
  • In Arabic writing, the language was originally written without any consonants (leaving the reader to add the consonants him/herself when he/she read the writing). It was only later that vowels were added to the written language, and these were written as extra marks above or below each letter (e.g. small dots or dashes), You can see this in Hebrew and other similar languages. (I’d always been curious what these dots/dashes meant. Now I know…)
  • Early writing was written on papyrus (which was a watery reed like plant), or was written on parchment. Parchment is apparently made like this: the animal’s skin is first washed in clean water, then soaked in a solution of lime for up to ten days. Each side is then scraped to remove the hair and flesh remaining, and once that’s done, the skin gets soaked once again. It’s then stretched onto a wooden frame, and then each side is further scraped with a curved blade to remove any debris left over. One more scraping after the skin has dried removed any debris, and then you’re good to go. Thus, parchment was hard to produce, expensive to buy, and so only the wealthy would use it for their affairs. (Huh. Didn’t know that, although it makes perfect sense.)
  • With reference to fonts and similar: italics is called that because the forward slanting writing was designed to be similar to the writing that clerks in Italy would use for their documents. (Makes sense.)
  • Times Roman was given its name as it was developed for the London Times newspaper in 1932. (I imagine that Times New Roman was a more modern refinement of that.)
  • The type Gill Sans was designed by stone carver Eric Gill, and so it goes on. Fascinating (to me at least).

In the old days, as paper was very hard to get and expensive to have and to use, a lot of people didn’t have a lot of practice in writing and so it was hard for the writer in question to judge how much room to leave on the paper/papyrus/parchment for the writing that you had to do.

Thus, mistakes were made, and I adore this signature of Elizabeth I (below), as she has all these flourishes and curls around her sig but then accidentally runs out of space on the paper and has to add her “H” to the last bit above the line. (I love how it shows that even queens make mistakes. 🙂 )

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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?

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

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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_familyA 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.)

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(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 it was really interesting to me to learn that 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: