Swabbing the Decks: Recently Read Reviewlettes

Lots of being busy has led to a lack of posts here on the blog, and I apologize for that, dear reader. I’m planning on this being a catch-up post of sorts so that I can get back onto schedule. 

So I’ve been reading for sures – I seem to have retrieved my reading mojo after having it slip out of view in March, and luckily, the titles that I’ve been choosing have been really good. (It’s nice when things align.) 

I had noticed that I had slipped off the wagon for reading from my own TBR over the last few weeks, so pulled an old Oprah read from the shelves: “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” by Pearl Cleage (1993). 

It’s been a while since I’ve chosen a title that reads like a “hot knife through butter”, so searching for that experience and hoping that this wasn’t a misery novel (as can be Oprah’s wont with her books), I found this to be a fun and optimistic read. It’s also particularly noteworthy as it was published back in 1993 and features an HIV-positive woman as the protagonist. 

Why was it noteworthy in 1993? Because the AIDS pandemic was in full swing, a mix of homophobia and denial across the U.S. (and my city) was common, and I was an AIDS educator in a medium-sized Bible Belt community (ref: homophobia and denial [for some groups] mentioned above).

Oprah choosing this title was a great way to reach an audience who wouldn’t automatically be informed about the disease. It was cleverly wrapped up in a cheerful novel featuring women, and it was Queen Oprah who chose it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at that time, I can see that she made a brave choice.

This is a homecoming-type novel, where the protagonist goes back to her small hometown after leaving Atlanta, the “Black Mecca” as the author calls it. Typical of a homecoming, she reconnects with old friends, makes new friends, and then makes new plans for the rest of her life. 

It’s well written, it’s easy to digest, it’s a fun read. Glad I reread this one, as I didn’t remember a thing about it from the first time. Plus – it was really interesting to place it in the context of history. Good one.

Pulling another read from the TBR pile, I chose “Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Anthology,” edited by Charles d’Ambrosio. As I was looking for some longform nonfiction and/or essays to read, this fit the bill completely for me, and I whipped through it. 

As is typical for most anthologies, there were some hits and misses but overall, it was a good read. What was a minor irritation, though, were the typos spread quite liberally throughout the pages. I kept checking to see if it was an advance copy (or similar), but no. It was the final proof and just had typos. Grr. 

Moving on from the typo situation, d’Ambrosio had selected some good essays and/or narrative nonfiction and I managed to glean some author names to search for in the future. Plus, in the end, the title did have more good reads than bad ones, so I consider that a win. Plus – off the TBR pile! 

During Spring Break, my mum had brought me an old Virago copy of “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West (which was a new read for me). Expecting a rather prickly reading experience, this one ended up being really enjoyable and I actually read it twice, back to back, just to look at how the narrative arc was structured since it was done so well. I’ll be looking for some more by Sackville-West and her gang in the future.

Now, the end of the semester is in sight for both students and teachers, Spring time is here in our area of the country, and things are turning green again. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees this week and I’ve just found out that I’m probably going to go to a work conference in Vancouver.

Life is really good. I hope you can say the same. 

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. 🙂

Cold Weather Reads for the Hot Season (at least here in Texas!)

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The temperatures here in West Texas are creeping up and have hit the typical numbers now, which means hot, hot, and more hot. I’m not the biggest fan of these never-ending hot and dry days, but luckily for me, I don’t have to work in the cotton fields or live in a house without air-conditioning. 🙂

It still doesn’t take the fact away that the days here can get really warm, and so I thought it might help keep us cool if I put together a reading list of books that feature cold weather in some way. (Cold and wet would be even better! You can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the girl, as they say.)

So, here are a few suggested titles from both the blog and my TBR that might do the trick for cooling down your internal thermometer:

Antarctica would be a good place to start, so how about a read of the riveting adventure of Captain Scott and his fatal expedition at the turn of the twentieth century? Apsley Cherry-Garrard has The Worst Journey in the World, a two-volume diary that details almost every step of the way and is an adventure classic that is hard to put down. You can almost shiver in sympathy at these poor men who follow an almost despotic leader across iceburgs with completely inadequate equipment and training. (Volume l and Volume II). Another angle would the biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard called simply Cherry (TBR).

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If your goal is general survival, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales (TBR) as it looks like it has some useful tips based on research, but if you’d rather look at a slightly warmer (and more civilized) trip across some wilderness, you could try Mary Bosanquet’s Saddlebags to Suitcases, where she details her time crossing some of Canada on horseback back in the 1930’s/1940’s. It’s still cool, but more summertime cool.

If you’re interested in history and the pioneer life (since it can get pretty cold in a log cabin or sod house), Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West looks good (TBR), and I know that Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993) is excellent.

If you’d prefer to look at pioneer things through a  family saga perspective, you could always read the classic, Giants of the Earth by O.E. Rolvagg (1927) which has some cold parts of it. (Clearly, since the story is placed on the northern plains of the U.S. in a log cabin…)

Speaking of living a domestic life for pioneers, another good read (this time a how-to book) is The American Woman’s Home by Catherine Beecher Stowe and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), an excellent guide for first-time explorers which tells you how to survive both the hot and the cold if you’re building a new life and a log cabin on the plains.

db035d32e6865b0673e873457270f2c5Another good pioneer perspective (including a difficult winter or two), this time from a very cheerful and optimistic newcomer, is The Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinor Pruitt Stewart (1914) or you could return to old faithfuls such as The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940). Or even the NF book, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin (2004) (TBR) which tells the tale of how a group of children got lost during a blizzard in America’s heartland back in the 1880’s.

Speaking of bleak weather, if you’d like to travel with a man and a boy during the aftermath of a tremendous event, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is as unrelenting a read as the bad weather and bad luck for these characters. (That’s a toughie to read, IMHO.)

On the other hand, if your plans are more “travel-around-the-world-with-servants” style, and you need some non-fiction to know *exactly* what to pack, try the Victorian travel book, The Art of Travel by Francis Galton (1854) . (So. Much. Stuff. But that’s ok as you’re not the one carrying it. :-} )

DQWqwPVXkAAFMF5Perhaps your plans include a journey via the Himalayas, so you could have an enjoyable journey with Michael Palin when he went there: Himalaya (2004) is a book about his travels there one year.

Another true adventure book that gets a bit cold is The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (TBR) which follows the truly amazing journey of seven prisoners of war who escape from a Soviet labor camp and travel across Siberia, China, the Gobi Desert, Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India in 1941. (Also the related film tells their story and is called “The Long Way Back” (2010) if you’re more of a film buff.)

And if you’d rather take a look at the Russian side of the world, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968) is a riveting quick read about how one Polish family survives as prisoners in Siberia around the start of WWII.

If you’d like to get away from almost everything, I’ve heard it gets a bit cold out in space, so you could always refer to Chris Hadfield’s lovely book about his life as an astronaut, The Astronaut’s Guide to Life (2013)… (or Mary Roach’s pretty hilarious Packing for Mars…)

For a rather different take on life on English moors, try The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959) , a collection of short stories by one of the more recognizable names of The Angry Young Men movement in mid-century England.

Or you could venture out onto the cold and rainy moors with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901)  or perhaps another of the many Sherlock Holmes titles. (They usually involve some cold places of one kind or another.)

More cold-weather crime is via Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, a collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. And don’t forget Dame Agatha Christie who has some cold reads, Murder on the Orient Express being one of the more obvious choices.

You might prefer to go more on the domestic route with some dreary weather, so perhaps The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1954) or a quick WWII domestic read of 1939’s Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struthers). You know what? The gritty Irish trilogy that starts with The Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien, 1962) or maybe the trilogy that starts with The L-Shaped Room by Lynn Reid Banks (also published in the 1960s) might hit the spot since that’s rather a cold book (re: temperature) at times. There’s also a sequel to that as well: The Backward Shadow (1970) and that’s followed by the final title, Two is Lonely (TBR). (These titles are also known as the “Jane Graham” series…) Just sayin’. Sometimes you want dreary, amiright?

For a snowy and slightly scary story, don’t forget that Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)  has some chilly moments in it as well, as does The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1896).

Peter Hessler has written several NFs about life in rural China, so perhaps start with River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze about his time teaching in a small rural town, although there are several titles from which to choose. It has some cold scenes in it.

Similar (in that both places can be cold) but different would be a read of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2010) of life for the typical person in North Korea. Brr. Hungry, poor and cold? No thank you.

If you’re not quite sure where exactly you’d like to go to get cooler, any of the prestigious America’s Best… volumes can take you almost anywhere you’d like, with travel writing collected and edited by a variety of authors (including Bill Bryson (2000) , Elizabeth Gilbert (2013), William Vollman (2012)   etc.)  These collections typically contain a mix of climates as part of their writing selections (although they can sometimes lack diversity in the author selections)…

Finally, for the more science-y folks, you could learn more about the amazing snowflake and see some stunning photography, in The Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrechrt and Patricia Rasmussen (2003).  This title even makes some parts of physics comprehensible and fascinating… (And that’s me saying that from the perspective of dropping physics and chemistry when I was 12 years old. If I can understand it from my non-science background, it’s probable that you will as well. Plus – great photography.)

So, there you go. Some wintery reads for you if you’re stuck with hot temperatures. Hope that helps (or at least guides the way for) you if you’re sweltering…!

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Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (2000)

Kidder_tracySubtitle: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.

So, this title was quite an astonishing read for me, in that the guy who is the focus of this story went through such an amazing and never-ending amount of crud and STILL didn’t get a bad attitude towards the other humans.

Here’s a summary of the story if you are not familiar with it already: Deo (full name: Deogratias) was a young man in Burundi who survived a civil war and the related genocide only to end up at JFK in New York carrying two suitcases and $200 in his pocket. He knew no one, had no contacts, no place to stay, no nothing, and yet somehow, through a combination of factors, he ends up in one piece and a medical school graduate.

I know, right? Rather puts your own life into perspective…

Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, found out about Deo’s story after he (Kidder) had penned his earlier NF, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who formed a non-profit to tackle public health nightmare situations in Haiti (and beyond). Kidder tracked down Deo’s awe-inspiring story whilst he was tracing Farmer’s since both Farmer and Deo ended up working together on some health projects.

deoDeo, born to a small farmer and his wife, grew up in the forests and mountains of Burundi, living a fairly typical agricultural childhood for his country until the civil war and unrest arrived. Having to run for his life when the murderous rebels surround his region, Dec finds himself alone and with no money or help as he crosses the Burundian landscape trying his hardest to avoid being killed in the genocide that was taking his country by storm. (The descriptions of what he sees and what he goes through have to be read to be believed. Warning: they are harrowing.)

After surviving months on the run, hiding in forests and just a few steps ahead of the rebel groups, Deo’s good fortune puts him on one of the few remaining aeroplane rides out of the unstable country, and Deo arrives in New York with not much, really, apart from his attitude and his ability to make friends along the way.

The young immigrant scrapes a living delivering groceries 12 hours a day, and living in Central Park or co-squatting in unlivable vacant buildings, but as you can read, by an amazing series of coincidences and people who know people, Deo ends up at Columbia University, followed by medical school. The “how” of all this is proof that good people live out in the world, even if they’re not obvious to you.

So, this was a true rags-to-riches story for this young African person, and as you can probably surmise, it’s a great story with an almost fairy-tale ending, so you’d think that Kidder, an award-winning author, would be the perfect match to tell this narrative.

And you know, he was until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly, for no reason really, Kidder starts injecting himself into the story taking it on a very philosophical track of meaning and forgiveness. All very valid, but TBH, Kidder really got in the way of Deo’s story, and I’m wondering if perhaps Kidder was trying to meet a publisher’s page number goal of some kind, because if he had stopped at an earlier finishing point, this book would have been outstanding.

It was almost as though this was two different books all smashed into one: one a fairly straightforward chronological narrative and the other more of an esoteric take on the morality side of things. I’m not sure why Kidder did this — I can only speculate — but it did not do the book justice, as by the time I’d reached the end and turned the last page, I was very ready to finish up the read.

And that’s a shame as the book should have ended up with much more powerful punch than it did. Instead of thinking “Wow. This is an amazing young man with an incredible story filled with hope and compassion,” I ended up going “finish up already, Kidder.”

So, I’d recommend that you read this story for the Deo true narrative, and when Kidder inserts himself in this unwarranted Yoda fashion, just stop your story there.

Deo’s story is breathtaking, but unfortunately, I ended up being annoyed with Kidder more than continue to be amazed at Deo. As any narrative NF writer should know, you don’t want to be part of the story unless you can’t help it. I think Kidder could have, but didn’t.