The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

Thi_Bui.jpg

Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

Advertisements

Me, me, me…

Cover artI apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. The only excuse I have that is remotely worthy is that I’m teaching a new class this semester, which is requiring five billion new PPTs which take some time to put together. (Hyperbole is the best, I think…)

Plus my computer has a mind of its own on occasion and I’ve lost a handful of files which meant I had to recreate them. Grr.

But the upside is that I have a great bunch of students this semester, and I’m also seeing some of my old students from the last few semesters around the building, so I’m enjoying saying hi to them… (Since I’ve only been teaching for the past year, having old students around the building is a new thing for me – I love it.)

In the meantime, I’m getting the new routine sorted out and organizing the work load more efficiently, so all signs point to more blog posts in the future weeks.

I’ve been reading, but just not as much as I did in the summer since there’s been that prep for class (which I don’t mind at all). All the prep also means that I have rather tired eyes at the end of the day, and now I finally understand what my parents and grandparents meant when they said that they were “just resting” their eyes … 🙂

And so, what have I been reading? Well….

I happened to find a brand-new copy of the old kids’ book called “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster (1961) which was quite a clever read. The title doesn’t make my Top Ten reads or anything, but it was a fun non-demanding read and just right for the overload at the beginning of the semester.

Image result for troublemaker leahThen, I moved on to something very different: “Troublemaker”, the autobiography by Leah Remini of her years spent in Scientology. Wow. It’s a very strange way of life and costs thousands of dollars to stay in it, but its attraction, I think, is that it provides a home and a direction for those folks who are feeling a little lost in their own lives. It promises so much – eternity, happiness, riches, saving the world – but the personal cost to each individual is immense.

Remini was in the religion due to her mother being a Scientologist, but when Remini was older, she saw the cult for what it really was, and tried to get out. However, if you’ve grown up in the religion, most of your friends and support system are also Scientologists, and the rule is that a Scientologist who leaves the group must be “disconnected” by their friends and family (i.e., they never speak again), so leaving is a big decision for some people. They lose their family, their friends, their entire support system… What a scary risk.

From the outside looking in (the position that I hold), it’s hard for me to see how otherwise fairly sane humans sign up for this, promising their lives to the religion for a billion years (via reincarnation) and spending gross amounts of money to reach the much-esteemed level of being deemed “clear”, the ultimate goal. (Tom Cruise, naturally, is probably up there by now since financial donations help you move up the ladder. In fact, Remini is not very complimentary of Cruise at all…)

So, this was a fascinating read for me, and in the end, I feel badly for the folks who get sucked into this group. Most are not very wealthy and the religion forces such spending on people that they end up declaring bankruptcy on many occasions. However, I try not to judge anyone as they’re just trying to improve their lives (and others) in many cases, but it actually does the complete opposite of that.

Remini gets out in the end and is in the position (socially and financially) that she can escape without having to suffer some of the huge consequences that others may have to endure. However, her mother and others do disconnect her in the end…

Anyway, I found this to be a fascinating read on human behavior…

For another perspective on Scientology, I would suggest “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman (2011).

 

Incoming…!

The capture from the 2018 FoL Fall Book Sale...

The capture from the 2018 FoL Fall Book Sale…

As tradition holds, I dropped by the annual FoL Book Sale last weekend and caught a few new (to me) titles to add to the TBR. (I know – this is just what it needs, but…. books….)

I ended up mostly in the NF side of the sale, and found these lovelies. It’s interesting that I didn’t go over to the F side, but there you go. I’m into NF these days, and F – I have plenty of those at home. (Except I do also have plenty of NF too, so not sure that reasoning would stand in a court of law. 🙂 Maybe I’ll just stay quiet on that issue!)

To the books (top to bottom in pic):

Bloody Confused – Chuck Culpepper (NF about an American sportswriter who travels to England to try to understand English football… Good reviews.)

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions – Gloria Steinem.  (NF – essays.) Saw Steinem at a talk not long ago, and her fierce character was impressive.

Time and Again – Jack Finney (the only F that slipped through the goalie.) Time travel.

She Got up off the Couch and Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana – Haven Kimmel (NF/bio.) I have read her earlier autobio of her childhood and growing up, and remember it as being hilarious. Hopefully, this title continues with that tradition!

Poems and Sketches of E.B. White – White is adorable and lovely and I have loved his essays…

The Promised Land – Nicholas Lemann (NF about the Great Migration of African-Americans post-Emancipation Proclamation).

Across China – Peter Jenkins (NF – travel book.) I’ve read his other two books about his walking journey across America, and I really enjoyed those.

Majesty: Elizabeth and the House of Windsor – Robert Lacey (NF – bio) I like reading about the Royals every now and then… Plus Lacey is interesting and has a dry sense of humor that slips in.

And then some Kindle titles seem to have sneaked in as well (although obvs not related to the book sale!):

All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez – James Patterson. (NF – sports). Woah. Does this belong to me, the person who has never watched a whole football game or followed it? Why, yes. I am curious about Hernandez’ story and how it went awry.

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land – Monica Hesse. (NF.) Seen plenty of good reviews and I love learning about different parts of America, good and bad.

First Plays – A.A. Milne. (Drama.) I really enjoy reading plays sometimes…

Only Beautiful Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea – John Averard. (NF travel about a country which I find to be very curious).

The Power – Naomi Alderman. (F – spec fiction)

Queen Victoria – Giles Lytton Strachey (NF/bio. I loves me some Queen Victoria sometimes.)

And I also picked up a couple of jigsaw puzzles ready for winter. I’m like a squirrel hoarding all her nuts (except that I actually know where most of the nuts are buried). I read an article the other day about how squirrels bury hundreds of nuts in preparation for cold weather, but then they forget where they buried them! (Aww. Bless. Just like me.)

The Halfway Point…

Goodness me. July already. It’s true that time flies as you get older…

It’s been a hot summer here in West Texas, and I should really be used to this as I’ve lived here a very long time now. However, I always forget just how high the temps can get (and for so long). We’re got another four months of heat, so it’s all in the pacing… 🙂

So – we’re halfway through the calendar year, and what do I have to show for it, reading-wise?

45 books in total for a total of 12,990 pages:

  • 24 fiction
    • Includes short story collections, poetry, and a play
  • 19 non-fiction
    • I’ve been on quite a biographical kick – 7 this year

I’ve also been placing a much stronger focus on reading books by (or about, but preferably both) persons of color and other marginalized groups. So nearly 50 percent of my total reads have fit under that category, so I’m happy with that.

I’m definitely going to continue to have that focus for the remainder of the year until, hopefully, I get to the point where it’s not a conscious decision to go out and seek POC authors. I still have to research it quite a bit right now to find overlapping titles.

I have found that one title will lead to another one really nicely sometimes, and I’m breaking new ground with quite a few authors, POC and otherwise. So that’s been fun.

February was African-American History Month here in the U.S., and I found loads of great reading those weeks. I met some new POC authors, and got quite a few TBR off the shelves and out of the door (to make more for new titles, naturally!)

And I’ve tried to throw in a few classics in at the same time: Native Son (Wright) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (Baldwin) were two notable titles that I was happy to read and complete (even if I wasn’t 100% sure that I understand the narrative – Mr. Baldwin, I’m looking at you.)

My summer is going very well. I’ve just finished that last summer session class (which I really enjoyed), and then this week, I start teaching my own summer class. This goes on for about a month, and then I’m on holiday with my mum and sister up there in Canada, eh? (Sorry, Canadians. Couldn’t resist it. I’m interested to see if Canadians do really say that a lot. I blame it on Mike Myers, really.)

We come back from that and then I’m off to Mexico to sit by the sea and do not much, and then it’ll almost be back-to-school time.

With lots of reading, movies and puzzle times, along with mucking about and weeding in the garden (which I love doing), it’s been pretty relaxing.

(I usually find weeding quite a meditative sport to do when it’s not one thousand degrees outside. This is a good thing as plants/weeds grow like crazy in the summer months.)

 

How’s summer (or winter) in your own world?

Summer Catch Up

catch_up I’m really enjoying this faculty summer schedule and am having a good time doing… well, not much really. I am auditing a class to renew what I know (and don’t know) about news writing (particularly with regard to AP), and although it might sound a bit dry, I am really enjoying it. Since I’m auditing it, I’m not doing it for a grade which is very freeing in many ways. I just sit at the back of the classroom, be quiet and take notes. It’s a fun way to learn….

As part of that class, I’m reading my way through The AP Style Book (which is the gold standard for journalistic writing and is similar to reading a huge dictionary). This sounds like it would be an arduous and boring task, but it’s actually not as reading the AP Stylebook is more like studying for a very particular game of trivia in some ways. I’m also learning a lot (which is extra fun).

So the mornings are usually taken up by class with a lot of homework (since it’s an abbreviated summer school class which means it’s very fast-paced).

The afternoons are usually filled with going to the gym, doing the class homework, and then reading (more deets to come) before the DH comes home after work and we start to do supper etc.

And – drum roll please. I put the last piece into that challenging jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working on, and here’s the pic of the final version. (I’m finding jigsaw puzzles to be very addictive!):

jigsaw_final

 

Playing around…

acting

Source: Shutterstock

Summer is here in every way, shape and form now we are in June. It’s fairly common to have multiple days of more than a hundred degrees as the high temperature, and I’m hoping that the oncoming weeks will bring us some more rain. (We live in a semi-arid desert region and most of the rain tends to fall around now. However, climate change (even the one invented by China 🙂 ) seems to be impacting that, so we’ll see. ETA: We had rain!!

The laid-back summer vibe continues apace, and it’s a very nice pace indeed. What have I been up to? Well, frankly, not much, and that’s fine with me.

Reading, naturally, has been happenin’ but since I’m spending a lot of time away from the computer screen, I think I’m just going to do some briefer round-up summary reviews instead of the in-depth ones. You won’t mind, will you? 🙂

I have been focusing more on the TBR pile, trying to make some inroads on that (**dry cough**), and I had a fun read of Famous American Plays of the ’40s (Henry Hewes, ed.). I’m not a drama expert in any way but I do rather like reading (and seeing plays) and I’ve had pretty good luck with this series (Famous American Plays of NAME the DECADE). Admittedly, the selections do tend to be very white and male, but you need to start somewhere, right? (Another good collection of plays (this time the 1950s/early 60s) is Six American Plays for Today edited by Bennet Cerf, in case you’re looking for something with variety.)

So this anthology of plays from the 1940s contained the following titles:

  • Home of the Brave – Arthur Laurents (1945)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller (1947)
  • Lost in the Stars – Maxwell Anderson (1949)
  • The Member of the Wedding – Carson McCuller (1950).

Three out of four were memorable, so that’s not too bad considering that I was familiar with approximately zero of these works of drama, and I enjoyed the read for the most part. Good find at the old FoL sale one year. I think I have a couple more of these titles (Famous Plays of the DECADE), so will pull them off the shelf at some point. I’m trying to make them last though. 🙂

(Linked with plays and drama, we also went to a showing of Ripcord (by David Lindsay-Abaire) at our local am-dram community theater. I love going to these things…Incredibly unlikely that I will ever get up on stage, but I have a good time from the audience seats watching others who are braver than I go up on stage.)

I also hit up a YA poetry book, Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) which was great. If you have any younger readers who quake at the thought of poetry, this would be a good introduction as the poetry is approachable and in free verse. It describes the childhood and adolescence of a young girl growing up in the north and with family in the south. Excellent read. Woodson has written quite a bit of YA stuff, so more to chase down at some point.

Picked up a more light-hearted title called The Diary of Hendrick Groen Aged 83 3/4 by an anonymous author. This is rather like an OAP version of Bridget Jones’ Diary – epistolary, funny, dry sense of humor. It tracks a year of OAP Groen as he moves into an old people’s home and makes friends and has adventures. Pretty funny. (It’s a Dutch book, I believe. Same sort of vein as A Man Called Ove, if you’ve read that one.)

Read a rather oblique and graduate-school-mill book by Amit Chaudhuri (2000), Freedom Song. Actually, this title (Freedom Song) contains three different novels inside its pages, but I only read one. As I didn’t really connect with the characters in this first story, I’ve ripped off the bandage and moved the book to the donate pile without reading the other two selections. (Woo hoo. Another off the TBR pile and out of the house!)

I think that those are most of the titles I’ve read since last I reviewed a book on this here ol’ blog, so I think that brings us up to speed now. More reading to come, no doubt…

And remember that jigsaw puzzle that I was working on a few days ago? Here is its most recent progress photograph:

file-2

DH describes me as a crackhead in terms of just how addicting these puzzles can be. Oh my….

 

“No more teachers, no more school…”

images

(That title may be somewhat obscure, but it is a reference to the song by Alice Cooper which details the delights of reaching summer holidays for schoolchildren. If you need a memory prod, try it here. It’s not the Glee one. 🙂 )

With May also under our belts, it means that the university’s semester is completed, grades are in and now, for the first time, I get to enjoy (and appreciate) faculty summer. I’m fortunate to have a contract which states that I only have to go to the office one day/week (for some meetings, really – the lifeblood of the professional life). And so, the next three months seem to be full of promise and opportunity. (The only time that I’ve ever had such a stretch of free time was during unemployment, and you just can’t enjoy it then.)

Plans for the summer include auditing a class for Summer I (if it makes with enough students), teaching a class for Summer II, and then it will be the autumn and time for classes to start up once more for a brand new school year. I have a writing conference to go to in July, and probably a trip somewhere sometime with my mum and sister, but there’s mostly free time for me to with as I wish. What an awesome present to have!

I’ve been reading, naturally. I seemed to have hit a bit of a reader’s block towards the end of the semester, but that is now sorted out, and I’ve popped to the library to pick up one or five alluring titles. I also owe you guys a couple of reviews… In the meantime, here is my loot from the library:

library

It’s good to have choices… 

Victoria and Abdul – Shrabani Basu (2010) NF about a friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a servant from India who was waiting tables at a celebration of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. (Lots of scandal, apparently.)

Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience – Chandra Prasad (ed.) (2006) F. I’ve tried this one, but it didn’t stick. Maybe another time…

Diana: In Search of Herself – Sally Bedell Smith (1999) NF. (This was related to my viewing the Royal wedding the other day…) I’ve read a couple of other titles (The Queen and Prince Charles) by this author so hoping this one will be as good.

Mankiller: A Chief and her People – Wilma Mankiller (1993) NF. Mankiller is (was?) the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and this is described as an autobiography of the tribe itself.

Paradise – Toni Morrison (1997) F. (Loved Morrison’s other reads so far: Jazz, Beloved, Sula…)

Extraordinary American Indians – Susan Avery and Linda Skinner (1992) NF. This is a juvenile read but I was looking for a general overview of First Peoples in the US, and this title came up.

And of course, I have all these great titles from which to choose, so what do I read? Something on my Kindle: Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Noah is the host of The Daily Show and has an interesting story to tell. His childhood was pretty rough when he was growing up in South Africa, and although he’s not the best writer in the world, he has a good story to tell.

Oh, and then I was in the mood for some short stories and trawled my TBR to find the 1999 edition of the Best American Short Stories (edited by Amy Tan). Enjoying these, but I think it’s best if I don’t read them one after the other. I need to take a break from these or they become a bit same-y when they’re really not. (My fault. I accept it.)

And we saw the sequel to Deadpool yesterday. My advice: save your money. :-}

And in the afternoons when it’s actually too hot to go outside and be productive, I have started a jigsaw puzzle. Fun times!

puzzle

ETA: Oh dear god. This is a hard one. What was I thinking? 

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

3eacf4c0-92b5-0132-4427-0ebc4eccb42f

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).

adult_adventure_back_view_cold_female_frost_frozen_girl-1268093.jpg!d

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…!

nintchdbpict000372502894

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

Empty_Mansions_paperback_cover_small

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

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

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

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

WAClarkHugetteClark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

General Catch-Up…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

file1