Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor (1982)

After reading some other Naylor books, I was pretty curious about this one, Women of Brewster Place (1982) which seems to be actually the most famous one of the lot. It’s been made into a movie and a TV miniseries, was awarded the National Book Award for First Novel, and is typically the title with which more readers are acquainted. It’s also been the one that I’ve had to search the longest for!

After my first read of Naylor’s, I’ve been searching for a similar read from her pen but it seems as though that first read (Bailey’s Cafe – 1992) is actually the outlier for her oeuvre, and her work is actually much darker and strongly literate than I had initially realized. (This is not a bad thing, by any means, but does mean that I have really underestimated her writing.)

So, what about this read? This book, my third Naylor read, confirmed my feeling that Naylor is a much more complex writer than I had believed after that first read. The second read, Mama Day (1988), was a tougher more complicated read than Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and this one (published in 1982) was the one that was more broccoli (for me).

If you review the dates of when these books were published, it looks like Naylor started off with really complex narrative arcs and then gradually got easier over time, but I could be mistaken on that. There are still quite a few titles that I haven’t read just yet.

Naylor was well educated. She had an undergraduate degree in English from City University – New York, and a M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale. In fact she published Women of Brewster Place when she was still in college, which underscores that she was probably deeply immersed in lit criticism and theory at the time – perhaps one reason for the complexity in this novel.

Researching Naylor online, it’s mentioned quite often that she was really a fan of the Harlem Renaissance writers back in the 1920s (such as Langston Hughes, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston), and in fact, Naylor uses one of a few lines of Hughes’ Harlem poem as part of her epilogue of this novel. (Same reference as the title used for “Raisin in the Sun” play by Lorraine Hansbury (1959).

(And her parents were, in fact, part of that great northward movement called The Great Migration when thousands of African-Americans went north and east in search of an escape from the Southern racism.)

Obviously, Naylor was not the only African-American writer of the late twentieth-century to be influenced by this cultural movement: others include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was heavily influenced, in turn, by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), so there’s a lot going on there (and that’s before we even get into the plot!!)

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place.

The plot of this one revolves around one central apartment block (Brewster Place) which is used as the hub for meeting a group of different characters as they interact with each via these seven short stories. It’s a tapestry book with lots of different threads, but Naylor handles the introductions really well, and gives the reader enough info to keep a clear idea of each of these individuals. (Similar set up as Bailey’s Cafe in that there is a central location [almost a character in and of itself) through which a set of other people interact).

Written and published originally as short stories in Essence Magazine, each of these female characters (except the one male – but he’s been through hardship as well…) have all gone through personal hardship of one type or another which has led them along the path to Brewster Place. Individually, each character is strong but together they are stronger as a group (and this is clearly demonstrated in the last chapter when things come to a head for the women).

In her acceptance speech for the NBA (the award not the basketball league!), Naylor said that she wrote the book “as a tribute to her [mother] and other black women, who, in spite of very limited personal circumstances somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”

So, we have this group of disparate mostly female characters, who have all undergone different hardships and somehow have ended up living in close proximity to each other.

Not only are there overlapping actions between each of these women, but each separate story is also interwoven with similar dream imagery. This dream theme is repeated throughout the novel starting with Hughes’ poem about “a dream deferred”, combining it with MLK Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the dreams (delayed or otherwise) that each of the characters have themselves, and then that dream sequence {or is it} in the final concluding chapter.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying that I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life…”

Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963.

So, this turned out to be much deeper read than I first anticipated and although I may internally grumbled about this, in the end and after more research, it’s actually turned into a much more provocative read than I had originally thought.

As with most things, I think you’ll get the most out of this read if you continue to explore the book online once you’ve turned that last page. Naylor was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life, and this online poking-around can lead you down into all sorts of rabbit holes about the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, sharecropping, civil rights, and onward.

So, although this perhaps wasn’t the most *enjoyable* book in the world, I did get a lot out of it.

For another take on Women on Brewster’s Place, try this review from The Vulture (May 09 2019):

The Women of Brewster Place Cracked Open the Door for Queer Tv.

Gloria Naylor in 1992.

NF November Week 4: NF Favorites

Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ Shelf Aware): We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.

For me to select a nonfiction book to read, I think it’s mostly determined by the topic, first of all. If I am remotely curious about whatever the subject of the book may be, then you can probably bet that I’ll take a second closer look at the volume. 

(And you know – this can happen even if I’m not that taken by the subject, but then it’s totally dependent on how the back-cover blurb + the first page (+ any notable reviews) read. If one (or more) or a combination of all those hit the target and still sound interesting (and well-written), then I’ll be even more interested than otherwise. And sometimes it’s none of those things! 😉 ) 

But then again, let me add this caveat that sometimes it’s a topic that I didn’t know that I was curious about and yet I STILL finish a book on it. For example, who would have thought that one of the most interesting books that comes to mind from the last few years was one that examines the phenomenon of the Baby Beanie craze that took over the country a few years back? 

(The book is called The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonette (2015).)

I didn’t collect Baby Beanies; didn’t own any Beanie Babies; hadn’t even thought about Beanie Babies for YEARS and yet, heard about this title, picked it up and found it to be fascinating. (And I’m still thinking about it years later!) 

I’m not even sure how I tracked down this title in the first place, but I would bet that I read about it on someone else’s blog and then found it at the library. But who would know that this title even existed without those? I wouldn’t have. 

So perhaps it’s a combination of all those factors listed earlier (the blurb + the first page + notable reviews + non-prof review of someone I trust re: reading)? 

If anyone had ever asked me if I would be interested in learning the details and history of the Beanie Babies, my hand would not have been raised to say yes, and yet, it was actually one of my most intriguing and memorable reads that I can remember in recent memory. Go figure. 

On a slightly different note, another NF book that blew my mind and sent me down tons of other rabbit holes since I read it in 2011: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2011) by Adam Hochschild

An amazingly well-written and well-organized read about the worldwide slave trade history and the efforts of a small group of men to end slavery in the British Empire (with ripples that crossed the globe afterwards), this was perhaps part of the catalyst that brought to my mind my ongoing interest in the African-American experience. 

(I’m really interested in the experiences of other disenfranchised groups, so I’ll be learning more about them at some point.This just happened to be first.)

A finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in NonFiction, this title rather opened the door and pulled me in to educate me on the history of the slave trade, which, in turn, led me to become very interested in race, diversity, bias and the other buzzwords flowing across campuses right now. 

Learning more about this part of history then pushed me to start reading slave memoirs and autobiographies (such as 12 Years a Slave and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or perhaps Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth…) 

Which then led me on to more recent history such as the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation/resegregation, the Great Migration, and right on up until we reach the various discussions about race and POC topics that make up part of today’s conversation. 

(I would also say that another influence on this diversity interest would be the current U.S. administration and its disdain for anyone who’s not a rich white man. But that could be a whole other conversation, couldn’t it?) 

In fact, I became so interested in this subject that it was one of the big reasons that I traveled to Memphis last Spring to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement there, to visit the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, and to walk down Beale Street. (Beale Street is a real-life place but is also the title of a book: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (pub. 1974), plus it’s been released as a remake as a movie…) 

(Another reason for the Memphis visit was to visit Graceland and other Elvis-related places. Interestingly, Elvis’ life and music were very influenced by the African-American experience, but again, that’s a whole other rabbit hole…) 

Back to the topic at hand: which other qualities do I look for in a good NF read? Well, I need to find the topic appealing in some way. I’m also learning that I’d like it to be really well-written, well-organized, quite academic in how its research is cited and with a long bibliography at the end. (More books! Give me more!)

And if you could also throw in an occasional mention of some dry sense of humor – witty, clever without being condescending – then I’ll definitely read it. 

And — I usually try to find a topic that’s pretty different from whatever I’ve just been reading about in my previous NF read, just to keep things interesting (unless I’m on a kick on one area in particular, in which case I might read more of the same).

(I’m very consistent in being inconsistent. 🙂 )

So – what about you? Let me know what you think. I am having a lot of fun visiting lots of other similar-minded people’s blogs! 

If you’re curious what other slightly-random topic reads I’ve read about, you might like to check the following reviews: 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Fiction/NF Pairing:

With Week 1 of Nonfiction November now completed, we’re on to Week 2. The task: to pair up a NF title with a fiction title. 

Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:

The 1936 edition of the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (the actual book itself, not the movie based on it) and Native Son, the 1940 novel written by Richard Wright. 

The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.

Let’s look a little more…

Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him). 

The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)… 

But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} ) 

As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road. 

So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads. 

Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside. 

For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given. 

War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.

You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs.  (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)

So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow? 

So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while.  It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time. 

When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale? 

If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today. 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

  • I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t speak to that just now. Perhaps others have?

Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis (2004)

We have chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. Jonathon Swift (1667-1745)

Shuffling along the animal shelves at the library and searching for something rather fun to read to recover from some recent not-so-great book experiences, this title, with its promise Sweetness and Light and honeybees, jumped into my little mitts. What’s not to love about the humble bumble bee? (Actually, serious question: are honey bees the same as bumble bees? Actually, there is quite a lot of difference, I learned.*)

This was a curious read for me. The author writes well, so that was lovely, but there was a general feeling when I finished it, that she may have been a little thin on material and so there was quite a mishmash of info in this volume. Its subtitle focuses on the “mysterious history” of the honeybee, and although bees have been around for hundreds of years, no one really knows how they evolved (if they have evolved even) so the starting chapters on the early history of these insects were rather speculative in nature. (But then anyone’s writing would be on this topic, since no one really knows for sure.)

I definitely think the strongest part of the read was in the middle section when Ellis is focusing on the true hard facts of honey life and culture: how the queen bees live, the roles of the worker and the drone bees etc. And, in fact, that is more along the lines of what I was really looking for when I chose this book: more of a biography than a history, really.

Despite this, I learned a ton more about bees in general: that their houses are called skeps, that they are dying off from different causes (including epidemics of mites), that different honeys have different flavors depending on the flora the bees found… I loved learning these facts and even (superficially) deliberated on whether the hubby would go for a beehive in the garden. (Not too enthusiastic about that idea.)

So, for a random pick off the shelves, this turned out to be a fast and interesting read about some creatures who play an important but usually unheralded role in the world around us. I’m still dreaming of having a beehive, but in reality, I’m a complete woose when it comes to the world of insects landing on me. But it’s good to dream…

And is there honey still for tea?” (from poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brookes – 1912.

*Bumblebees are rounder, “large in girth”, more hairy and colored with yellow, orange and black. Bumblebees can sting multiple times. Generally, honeybees are more slender, less hairy and have a pointy stomach. Honeybees can only sting once. I’m still going to run screaming from bees though, so not certain that I’ll have the peace of mind to check about the shape of their tummies. 🙂

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it.

I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women of whom Robinson makes mention includes those in a wide range of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too-convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her (for being a person of African descent), so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?)
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women – Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English (1978/2005)

Continuing with my ongoing goal of reading from my own TBR (ha!), I pulled down this title. I’ve read Ehrenreich NF before (such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America [pre-blog]) so I knew to expect a well-written and pretty thoroughly researched non-fiction read from her (and the co-author), but what I was really impressed about was the breadth (and depth) of this look of women’s health (and the accompanying [mostly male] advisers. 

So – what is this book about? It’s an almost academic survey of how the health of women (and thus women themselves) have been on the receiving end of very questionable “scientific” advice over the years, and since it was a large overview of a long period of time, it was interesting to see the general patterns of the authoritarian (mostly male) through the years. 

For example, it’s pretty well known that the Victorian woman was treated as though she was an infantile imbecile by the males (and some females) in her life, but it was amusing to see how the advice from the “scientific experts” evolved from this to the Edwardian woman (who was told that her whole life was to produce children but then hand them over to a nanny or similar) to the next generation of women who were advised to treat their children via the whole “children should be seen but not heard” paradigm, to another stage when the foci of the family was to please the child first and foremost… and so it continues.

I am hoping that the most recent trend of viewing children as “equal” in power to (or sometimes with more power than) the parents will end soon, as I am seeing the result of that in some of the college students in my classroom at times. 

(The Helicopter parent has now been replaced by the Lawnmower parent, it seems. Lawnmower parents do more than the hovering of the Helicopter parent: the Lawnmower group actually leap into their adult child’s life and mow down any obstacles for their kid. Thus, the analogy of the Lawnmower… Of course, I’m not asserting that every parent does this, but it is common enough to be a “thing” in higher ed.) 

The “expert advice” for women has also evolved in tandem with the evolution and maturation of science as a discipline, since according to Ehrenreich, almost every piece of advice has been painted with the color (and authority) of science, whether it was crud or not. People followed what these “experts” recommended, regardless of how wacky the advice was. (This also follows with the notion that women were also infantile and did not have the wherewithal to make their own health decisions.) 

(Thinking about it, it’s a horrifyingly interesting exercise to see how this is playing out right now in some of the states and their recent (anti-)abortion laws. Women are still being told how to control their bodies by large legislative bodies of ill-informed men. Plus ca change…)

So, anyway, I really enjoyed this provocative (in terms of “thought-creating”) read, and if you’re interested in medicine, in women’s issues, in medical history… you’d enjoy this title. 

(Note though that this book was originally written in 1978, but the text has been updated in pieces. The updating is a little patchy in places, but overall, it’s a really interesting read as both a piece of history and an overview of social issues.) 

A Silver-Plated Spoon – John, Duke of Bedford (1959)

I seem to be rather enamored with biographies and autobiographies at the moment, and so, as part of my goal of reading more from my own TBR, I pulled this title down from the shelf. I had found this volume at one of the FoL book sales, and bought it as I was intrigued by (a) the fact that I remember being taken for several visits to this guy’s family (and stately) home as a child, and (b) I was also curious about the reason why it had shown up in West Texas, 5,500 miles away from the place it described. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book, and it turned out in the end, I was actually pretty impressed with how proficiently it was written and the author’s witty sense of humor. (Very dry.) 

I grew up in Bedford, a middle-sized market English town that has a history of hundreds of years. Despite many years being educated there, I was still pretty ignorant about some of its local historical figures (this family being one). However, I’d wondered about this family title (Duke of Bedford), and since they also lived in the same county (I think), what their connection was to the town of Bedford. This read clarified all that for me.

John, the Duke of Bedford author, writes a fairly straightforward recounting of his family’s long history. His family records can take his descendants back for hundreds of years with a fairly constant peripheral relationship with the royalty of the time. (A few queens and kings even stayed the night in their ancestral home, Woburn Abbey, which fascinated me. How on earth would you prepare your house for an overnight stay of the Queen?) 

So, there’s a lot of family and local history retold in this book – interesting for me, but perhaps not so interesting for others with no connection to the area. I was impressed with the fact that the Russell family (who make up the Duke connection) had kept accurate records of their ancestors for so many years and, having watched my father labor for years over our own (slightly more modest) family tree, was well aware of how much work tracing such a personal history can be for someone dedicated to the cause. 

John’s (the Duke in question) childhood had been isolated and he had had a lonely upbringing with a very distant father (personally speaking). However, John doesn’t seem to hold a huge grudge towards his parent (although he certainly doesn’t give him much slack), and so the majority of the book puts a lot of focus on how much he (and his wife) have worked on turning his stately home into a profitable concern instead of the partly ruinous mound of bricks that his earlier relatives had left to molder. I really appreciated how this Duke had seen the value in renovating the large house whilst also keeping it historically accurate. (It was very sweet actually.) 

So, this was an interesting interlude going back in time for an important local family from the area where I grew up. (Curiously, their family’s link to Bedford is not with my nearby market town of the same name. It’s to do with some real estate in Bedford Square in the City of London.) 

This was actually a far better read than I had anticipated, and I’m glad that the title had somehow made it onto the TBR (and now it’s off!). 

The question now remains: what title to read next? 

Woburn Abbey.

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann (2016)

I am learning that “The New Yorker” journo, David Grann, is a consistently good writer which then makes a consistently good read. Honestly, Grann’s work is such sophisticated narrative nonfiction that you know you can trust the text for both impeccable grammar and accurate facts, all bundled up in a way that is just so enjoyable for me as the reader.

(Gushing words, right? Grann’s worth them. Unfortunately, he’s only published three NF books, so far (that I know about): this one, “The Lost City of Z,” and “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes,” and so I only have one more read to go. I hope Grann’s busy working on something else. 🙂 )

To this particular title: Grann has done several years of painstaking detective work and reporting to uncover the truth about the “Reign of Terror” that was inflicted on the Osage tribe in Oklahoma at least during the 1920s and 1930s. (It may have lasted longer than that, but due to suspiciously shoddy record-keeping, it’s hard to say.) 

The story itself sounds as though someone has just invented it for a high-dollar movie. There are so many twists and turns within it and such a large group of nefarious and powerful people involved, that it’s hard to believe that it happened. But that’s what money will do to some people. 

This is an in-depth look at the clash between the First People Osages and the surrounding white community when an enormous oil field is discovered under the Osage’s reservation land. It’s also the story of a baby FBI just starting out and of what people will do for love and money. (Mostly money, in this case.)

The Osage story is a familiar and sad one: impacted by the Trail of Tears’ forced migration, the Osage tribe was forced to hand over its ancestral land to the U.S. government. However, unlike a lot of other less fortunate tribes, this tribe was able to keep ownership of the mineral field under their land. 

Oil means money (and a lot of it), and the Osage people’s wise legal agreement meant that the tribe were then the richest people per capita in the world. Combine the land grab with the oil boom and things get rather dicey. Add into that combination the heady mix of power and money… 

Grann adds to this story the beginning of the FBI, and then he leads the reader through this winding journey of how Hoover and the agency he heads overlap with the strangely large numbers of Osage tribal members who kept dying under suspicious conditions on the reservation. Money could protect them from many things, but not from a network of high-powered businessmen determined to get even richer.

So, this is about 300 pages of, as Grann describes it, “a chilling conspiracy” that in many ways is not over for the tribe. More than twenty-four Osage tribe members (and friends) were murdered around this time on the reservation, but written records are so sloppy and spread out across the country, that it’s hard to know the final count — there may be many more that are unaccounted for. 

it’s so compelling that I actually read this whole book in two days which is a direct reflection of Grann’s storytelling abilities.  There are a LOT of moving pieces and variables, but Grann’s mastery of his material means that he doles these pieces out in a logical and manageable way for the reader, but I must admit, it’s not a book that you can really snooze your way through. (That’s also another reason why I blasted my way through the book really quickly.)

This title is so worth the interweb hype that’s bubbling through many book blogs, and I can only add that this book is one that lives up to its reputation. Stellar storytelling, thorough reportage and great writing make this one of the best books that I’ve read in a long while. 

P.S. Just found out that there is a movie in the making. Cool.

ETA: And then there’s this: Perusing Wiki for more info about this topic, I came across the little nugget of info that the Osage Tribe referred to (white) Europeans as I’n Shta-Heh (or Heavy Eyebrows) because of their facial hair. 🙂

Interested in more Grann writing? Try this one: The Devil and Sherlock Homes: Stories of Murder, Madness and Obsession

Trip to Memphis, Tennessee….

Quote

“I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we’re going to Graceland.” 

— Paul Simon, 1986.

As part of Spring Break last month, I decided to meet my visiting English mum in Memphis, a musical mecca of sorts as well as being very influential in the history of U.S. Civil Rights over the years. 

A photo of my lovely old mum standing in front of large photo of young Elvis.
Here’s my lovely mum standing in front of a pic of a lovely young Elvis. 🙂

My main impetus was to visit Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley and declared National Historic Landmark. Interestingly, it’s also the second-most visited house in the U.S., after the White House (current inhabitant notwithstanding) with more than 650,000 visitors each year. 

Photo of entry ticket to Graceland.

The city is also quite central to the places from where each of us were traveling, so there were multiple reasons for going there. Mostly, though, if I am honest, I wanted to see the Elvis stuff. I’m not this huge Elvis SuperFan or anything, but I did grow up as a kid seeing his movies and hearing his songs on the radio. The only Elvis I could see in my mind was him in his later days when he was a tad overweight and wearing his white rhinestone jumpsuit get-up so I was very interested in learning more details. 

One of the King’s white concert jumpsuits. The whole museum was set up very professionally for both the Elvis SuperFan and for others who were perhaps just mildly curious.

We started off with the mansion tour (the Graceland place), and although filled with visitors, it wasn’t too busy or cramped and visitors are kept moving for most of the time. (You can hang out if you’d like, but most people tended to keep moving once they’d got enough.)

Curiously, the actual home is very modest considering that Elvis was one of the biggest rock n roll stars on the planet, but the more I learned about him, the more I realized that this modesty wasn’t all that surprising for the man.

(And compared with the overkill commercial consumption of celebrities (and certain politicians) of today, it’s all rather understated. His mum was in charge of the interior decorations which I think was just sweet, btw.)

Graceland’s living room just to the right of the front door. Elvis was very proud of his custom settee since it would sit his whole team when they came to visit, but on the whole, the house is pretty modest.

The general feel of the place is that of a shrine more than a museum. So many of the people who toured while we were there were almost holy in their approach to seeing this house, and most people tended to whisper their comments to each other, similar as one does in other rarified environments.

I thought that this home was especially meaningful when I learned how the early years of Elvis were impacted by poverty and other social ills. For Elvis to live in such a house must have seemed like a dream to them all at times.

Once we’d been through the mansion and had had enough there, we went across the road (via shuttle) and landed in the large lot that houses the rest of Elvis’ things and Elvis memorabilia (all of which are included in the admission price). It’s all really very well done, and although not cheap, it’s thoroughly worth the rather spendy ticket price to see this side of Elvis.

Also, on this side of the street are the food and drink places with loads of Elvis-titled dishes etc. (The food place was called Gladys, in tribute to his mum whose cooking Elvis loved…Yes. You could have a fried sandwich just like Elvis liked.) Lots of yummy young-Elvis pics to look at as well. 😉

(I think what helped to make this Elvis visit such a good experience was having done my homework prior to arrival, so I was at least familiar with some of his life.)

Highly recommend doing that. I think prepping for a travel trip like this one by reading ahead is like seeing the difference between normal TV and HD. You suddenly see all these details that you didn’t know were there all the time.

Memphis, of course, is home to more than just Elvis. Other places related to the industry include Staxx Records and the small but very influential Sun Studio where loads of musicians have recorded their music. Both Sun Studios and Staxx are quite a way from Graceland, but not crazy far. Just take an Uber and it’ll work out. It worked out about $12/one way. (Energy-wise, we were both done after doing Graceland, so we went back to the hotel for a snooze and something to eat. zzzzz. 🙂

(Part Two of this Memphis trip report to come in a day or two….)

Here’s the title I read to prep for the trip: Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times – Glen Jeannsome, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolovic (2011).