October 2019 Reading Review

That was a pretty fun month, reading- and life-wise. Outstanding was the play that we saw at the university (Black Girl, Interrupted) and watching the BBC-TV series, “The Durrells in Corfu.” 

  • Total books read: 12 (including 1 DNF)
  • Total pages read:   2664 pp. (av. 242 pp.)
  • NF: 4 (36% of total)      
  • F: 7 (64% of total)
  • TBR: 6 (50% of total read). 
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 55%.
  • Library: 5 (including 1 ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 7 (58% of total).
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 6 females + 0 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 1 (but probably going to pick it up again after a space of time)
  • Oldest title: 1883 (A Book on Medical Discourses…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 344 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 132 pp.

Here’s what I read in October:

Plus (because I am a complete nerd) this jigsaw puzzle:

November plans? Not really. I am very open to whatever comes my way and I’m happy to keep jogging along in this particular lane. I might need to rein in the book purchases though. (With the caveat that there is a December book and jigsaw puzzle sale on the cards…) :-}

Oh, and join in a bit for NonFiction November...!

General Catch-Up – October 2019

Autumn has finally arrived here in my region of the world. The temps have been cooling down significantly – even enough for us to put the flannel sheets on the bed. (I’d forgotten how delicious these feel to sleep between: it’s like sleeping in clouds. Sigh. Bliss.) I’m wearing socks more regularly during the day and even had to pull on a coat last week. I’m loving it all.

There are some Octobers when I’m just pulled back into one more read of “Dracula,” the 1897 classic by Irish writer Bram Stoker. (For a previous review, see here and here.) My typical experience is that I really enjoy the whole experience, even if it’s not the first time of reading it – I’m up to about five times now… And now I think it’s time to give it a break.

It’s got all the same great ingredients: epistolary, scary-but-not-too-scary, familiar storyline but, for some reason, this year’s read dragged for me which signals that perhaps I need a break. It’s been fun, Bram, but I’m gonna to put you aside for a while so I can get your “special” back. No hard feelings. You’re still awesome. I’ll still come back to you. Just not for a while. (And if you’d like to see a review of an earlier version of Dracula-like creatures, try The Vampire by John Polidori (1819).)

In other news: we went to a really good play over the weekend. Called “Black Girl, Interrupted”, it was written by Iyanisha Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at our university here, and was stupendous. Seriously. It was an excellent play-going experience and was completely professionally run. The play is based on the real-life rape and murder of a black female soldier in the Iraq conflict and how the U.S. Army covered it up as a suicide. (The drama is fictionalized from there, but the actual basis of the plot is true.) So – phew. Hard topic but again, an excellent experience. If this play comes to your area, I highly recommend it.

I’ve been reading but have had some titles recently which have been good, but for some reason, haven’t had a blog post about them. One, especially, deserves its own post but for time reasons, this mention will have to do. “The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (F) was a fast and thoughtful YA read, epistolary (as the title implies) and about a young teenager who goes against the cultural mores of his tribe when he decides to go to a high school “off rez”. A sensitive and provocative read about the importance of fitting in balanced with being true to yourself. I bet high schoolers love this read. (Maybe not. They might be more enamored of “Twilight” or playing on TikTok or similar…:-} )

Another read (although this was not half as good) was a quick peruse through “The Well-Dressed Lady’s Pocket Guide” by Karen Homer (2013), who has written for Vogue and other fashion mags. Fairly ok, but didn’t really have that much helpful information in terms of wardrobe, but a pretty ok foundation overall. I’m trying to make more use of my current clothes, especially with our cooler temperatures, and was rather hoping that this guide would help with that. It was actually more of a brief historical overlook of fashion, which was ok – just not what I had been looking for/hoping for.

In the in-between times, I’ve been sucked into the flow of doing another jigsaw puzzle – I’m addicted to these things and time just disappears when I’m doing them sometimes. This one (on the right) is a redo of one my mum and I attempted a couple of years ago on one of her visits, but we had run out of time to finish it. I’m determined to finish this sucker now. 🙂

And now it’s almost November. Thanksgiving is around the corner (wow) and then, I saw Christmas stuff in Target yesterday…

And I found a big stash of Twiglets half-price (below) whilst I visited World Market. (They are typically very hard to find, locally, so this stash will need to last quite some time. In theory.) Life is good.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.) 

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

March 2019 reading review…

March passed by in a flash and that speed-of-light passing was reflected in my reading totals for the month. At first, I thought this low number was quite strange, but when I look back at other past March reading totals since I started teaching, I can see it’s historically this way. I think I forget just how busy and occupying teaching can be sometimes. Plus – there were Spring Break travels!

Still, no worries. 

The reads for March 2019 included:

And wow. No review blog posts. Gasp. Never mind. I’m going to do a recap post with some reviewlettes in a bit to get me back up to speed… 

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in March 20195
  • Total number of pages read 1,219 pages (av. 244). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for April include continuing the POC author/topic focus, finishing up a read of a teaching skills book, and placing my focus back on my own TBR. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other tidbits:

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

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

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

Travelin’, Travelin’, Travelin’ ….

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I recently was traveling with family to see more family in the beautiful city of Santa Fe in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable small community in quite a compact space that is stuffed to the gills with art of all descriptions and turquoise jewelry of every stripe possible.  

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

I’ve been to Santa Fe quite a few times, but it wasn’t until this time around that I decided to learn about the history of the area and how the town became like it is. As seen in the first photo, it’s a community of adobe dwellings (at least in the downtown plaza area), and this is by design. Back in the 1920’s, community leaders came together with a goal of increasing tourism and agreed to have building codes only allowing certain architectural styles, mostly adobe around the plaza. There are of course other architectural styles but downtown is strict on its zoning and building codes. All of this uniformity makes a very pleasing atmosphere actually, and at least it represents and respects the Native American (or First Peoples’) history within these parts.

So – loads of museums to go to: George O’Keefe Museum, Museum of Folk Art (tons and tons to look at with such amazing detail and very enjoyable curating), a children’s museum, and then art dealer shop after art dealer shop showing pieces of almost every school of art, it seemed, including art from Dr. Seuss himself.

BookshopAnd then, of course, I happened to find a book shop. (Quelle surprise!) Called Collected Works, it was slightly off the beaten tourist path, but well worth the walk. It’s a charming lovely indie book shop with an extremely well curated selection of books (including a wide selection of titles in translation which was interesting.)

Of course, I had to buy a book – support an indie bookseller today!

Had a lovely coffee shop and comfortable furniture so we had a nice sit-down and browse, along with some laughs. And on the way home we came across the following sign which made me wince a bit…

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Had a good stay and will definitely return to Santa Fe again. It’s only a five-hour drive which is close by Texas standards. (Distance in Texas is usually measured in the number of hours it takes to drive somewhere else from where you are. For example, Houston is a ten-hour drive from where I live, and Austin is a good six hours.)

Fun weekend. You should go if you can…

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit – Leslie Marmon Silko (1996)

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This is a collection of more than 20 essays that cover author (and English professor) Marmon Silko’s perspective on life for Native Americans (or First Peoples) in the U.S.  toward the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the essays were pretty eye-opening, as despite being an independent minority population of their own, it was clear that this Native American First Peoples tribe of the Laguna Puebla has social justice problems and public health issues akin to other minority groups who have faced colonialism of different types across the world.

Mormon Silko grew up in the Laguna Pueblo tribe and witnessed how the tribe has reacted to modern issues as well as how the group has tried hard to maintain its history and traditional ways. As with any group who has a mostly nomadic history, traditions were mostly passed down orally from, in this case, her grandfather and via the tales of the Spider Woman who was the basis of the Pueblo Creation Myth.

(Side Note: I personally adore this story of how the world was created and how we continue to be linked with one another, no matter who or where we are. (See the myth here for details.) In fact, I love the myth so much that I used it in a speech that I gave on campus just the other day and any time that I’m referring to the importance of collaborative work and everything/one is connected, it comes up.)

Articulate and angry, Mormon Silko’s personal essays are diverse in subject, covering topics from her childhood to Pueblo culture to abuses by the Border Patrol to land and water rights. The introductory essay was pretty academic and needed quite a lot of concentration on my part as a reader – challenging when I’m on the elliptical at the gym! However, the remaining selection of essays was more on the level of a General Reader (as opposed to academic writing for a tenure packet) and so the tone does vary substantially throughout the book.

The vague overall tone was one of anger, and I could empathize with the author on this. I’m sure I’d feel similar emotions if my descendants (and current family) still faced ongoing discriminatory practices off the tribe’s reservation. However, steps towards improvement must have been made since the book was written?

As with the varying tone, the quality of the essays was variable as well – not that there were some weak ones, but I do think that there were some that were much more powerful and strongly written, and the level seemed to decline as the book progressed. (Or was it reader fatigue?)

As with almost any collection of essays, especially those written by an academic presumably enmeshed in the tenure process, and then combined with the usual formulae of a typical university creative writing program, there was some repetition where it was obvious that one essay had been retooled slightly to meet a different objective or journal. I tend to find this repetition annoying as I would argue that doing so was the result of being lazy/too busy/on summer break. Some careful editing would cut this problem out, but who’s the editor when one is a creative writing faculty? Both judge and the jury at times, I think, unless you’re careful.

So overall, a fairly well presented selection that portray a way of life that’s arguably disappearing over the years. Just a few content problems, but nothing that a good editor could not have mended.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival – Velma Wallis (1993)

Life in Alaska can be challenging for the Athabasken Indians who live close to the Arctic Circle. Living off the land and leading a nomadic life would mean frequent challenges for the tribe – and when life got very harsh with starvation at the door, it was traditional to abandon the older weaker members for the good of the group.

This tale is of two such old women. It sounds very grim, but under the pen of this author, the reader is faced with the characters’ surprising (and admirable) courage and wisdom as the two elderly women vow to “die trying” to survive.

A short tale of some brave women who face tribal taboos to learn of a strength they did not know they had. A very encouraging read, especially if you’re looking for another perspective to balance the generally held stereotype that “old = weak and useless”….

From the ILL at the library.

On another (rather different) note, I do have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the reading of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E. M. Delafield, and only wish that I had got to it sooner. It’s exquisitely funny in places.