General Catch-Up…

With the arrival of December comes the end-of-the-semester projects such as grading and finishing up some work writing and looking forward (very looking forward) to the holiday break.

I’ve been so lucky this semester in terms of having some really hard-working students who are willing to learn what I’m trying to teach, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned as much from them as they have from me. I’m only in my second year of college teaching, and I want them to have the best college writing experience that I can possibly give them, so I’m always reading how to improve my teaching, both in and out of the classroom.

Finals Week starts this Friday, so that means that classes are all wrapped up for the most part now. No more power-points (which has been the name of the game this semester); now, I just need to get them organized in files on my computer ready for next semester, finish up the grades, and hopefully, have a much more relaxed schedule.

Plans over Christmas mean not much, really. Superhero and I have quite a few days off work, so we’ll be putting up the decorations (nothing too crazy but it’s fun), and then just hanging out until the new year. May be some small travel, but it’s up in the air right now, but if we stay or if we go, it’s fine either way.

This last time last year I was about to have surgery on my ankle which rather put a damper on things, so no surgery this year means a much more relaxing time off (for both me and for the Superhero – he won’t have to drive me around everywhere!)

I’ve been reading, and so here’s a couple of reviews of two titles that didn’t make it on to the blog proper just yet. They’re both good reads – just haven’t had the time/energy to compile a proper review. (I must admit that I had a better read of one more than other.)

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung. Just like it says on the tin, this is a graphic novel about a young woman coming to realize (and accept) her introvert tendencies. It’s like a more personal Quiet (SusanCain), but with lots of pictures. I’m torn about these “quiet books”.

Yes, I might be more of a quiet person than other people, but I don’t consider it to be a pathological weakness (which is sometimes the feeling that I get from some authors about the topic). I’m not weird (others may disagree!), I think that there are plenty of people like me, and luckily, I think the world is becoming a lot more accepting of us non-noisy folks.

I do admit that I may feel like this perhaps because (a) I’m old enough to not be that concerned about what other people think about me, and (b) the world knows more about how different people view the environment and the people who surround them. When Cain’s book first came out, was she the first author to really focus on this aspect of people? I seem to remember there being quite a kerfuffle about her non-fiction book at the time.

The second title that I’ve finished was a charming nature-focused book by Sy Montgomery called How to be a good creature: A memoir in thirteen animals. This was a shorter read, wherein Montgomery recalls thirteen animals with whom she’s had friendships of one sort or another. What was really good about this read were the lithographic illustrations by Rebecca Green. Just a sweet book to read, really.

I’ve also just finished a great non-fiction read about Joseph Lister and his impact on Victorian surgery, which was great. However, I’m going to put together a longer review about that…

Speaking of longer, I’m currently reading Alex Haley’s Roots, which is close to 1,000 pages. For some reason, I’m not hyperventilating about the length of this book, but I must admit that it would probably be easier to read on a Kindle. 🙂

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The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

ravenmaster

Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

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Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

October 2018 Reading Review.

Crikey! That month passed quickly! Let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest).

The reads for October included:

Ongoing project: Just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in September7

Total number of pages read: 1,818 pages (av. 260).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: fiction / 3 non-fiction.

Diversity4 POC. 3 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, 4 owned books and e-books.

Future plans include just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

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.

 

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:

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