Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.

Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)

At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)

As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.

African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).

She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.

Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.

However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).

This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.

(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon. (NYT.)

The Family Next Door – John Glatt (2019)

Subtitle: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and their Extraordinary Rescue. (Cue: longest subtitle in the world.)

From the publisher:

On January 14, 2018, a 17-year old girl climbed out of the window of her Perris, Calif., home and dialed 911 with shaking fingers. Struggling to stay calm, she told the operator that she and her 12 siblings – ranging in age from two to 29 – were being abused by their parents. When the dispatcher asked for her address, the girl hesitated. “I’ve never been out,” she stammered.

To their family, neighbors and online friends, Louise and David Turpin presented a picture of domestic bliss: dressing their 13 children in matching outfits and buying them expensive gifts. But what police discovered when they entered the Turpin home would eclipse the most shocking child abuse cases in history.

This wasn’t an easy read (in terms of the topic) but it was a quick read (in terms of how much time it took to actually turn the pages). The topic of this severe ongoing child abuse was so tough for me (because the parents were so very horrible), in fact, that there were several times that I nearly put down the book unfinished, and this would have been a shame on several levels.

I really finished it because I felt that I owed the book’s subjects, the Turpin family siblings, that I should finish it as a way of supporting them. (And I don’t have any child abuse in my family or anything and yet it was still a wickedly hard read to complete.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, this is basically a fairly straightforward recounting of the Turpin family, made up of a truly terrible mother and father and their thirteen poor children. The parents created a cult of sorts within the house which enabled the two adults to seriously abuse all thirteen of the kids every day of their lives, from ages newborn to late twenties. How did this happen? Why didn’t the older children run away when they could? Why did no one know this was going on?

Written by true-crime reporter John Glatt, this is a pretty well researched story that covers just how the Turpin parents managed to keep such tight control over their growing brood of kids – and yet no one (not a family member, not a neighbor, no one) noticed (or alerted authorities). The parents kept everything awful happening only within the house by keeping their children inside under lock and key (and sometimes chained to the bed for hours, days and weeks at a time).

Glatt goes into the background and history of the family, and, as is typically the case in situations like these, it’s related to the development of a cult-like situation, to a twisting and manipulation by those with power, and a testament to the ripples that can occur through generations of truly awful parenting.

The Turpin parents would not just abuse all these kids, but also do things that would amount to torture for children.

The Turpin kids (faces blocked out).

For example, the children were never given enough food or drink (leading to developmental delays) but the mother would buy a fruit pie and leave it on the kitchen counter in full display of these hungry kids. However, no one would be allowed to actually eat the pie and so, despite being really hungry, the family would have to watch the pie gradually rot in its own plate.

At Christmas, the parents would buy loads of expensive presents but again, the kids were not actually allowed to touch or use the presents. For example, one Christmas, each of the 13 siblings were bought a new outside bike to play with but the bikes were kept for years, rusting under an overhanging shelter with the tags still on them whilst the kids were imprisoned inside.

Education was another thing withheld. Some of the younger siblings (including young teenagers) were not taught the whole of the alphabet, despite the home being officially registered as a home school with the state. It’s this never-ending litany of awful things that almost made me put the book down, but I felt a responsibility to the Turpin siblings to finish it out.

There were two frustrating things with how the book was written, however. First was that Glatt, as a journalistic reporter, relies far too much on just one mental health/child abuse expert and only refers to this one source throughout the entire book. Additionally, this was also a mental health expert who hadn’t even met the family and so was entirely removed from the true story. What? You could only find ONE expert to talk about this story with all its twists and turns? No other sources out there who could, perhaps, address the world of religious cults, of child abuse, of family relationships…? Hmm. So that struck me as just being very lazy on the part of the author.

Second, there wasn’t that much information to finish off the story so it was a little dissatisfactory from a reader’s perspective. I can understand why – the Turpin siblings are off living their lives as best they can with new names and new environments – but it was still frustrating as a reader to not know a few more details, so the book ended rather suddenly for me.

I don’t know that it could have ended any other way, to be honest, but after all the detail in the first three-quarters of the book, the recounting of the court case seemed repetitive and superficial. But then that goes back to protecting the anonymity of the remaining Turpin siblings and their new lives. We don’t learn any further details about them, but I can completely understand the why and I only hope that they are thriving with support.

BlacKKKlansman – Ron Stallworth (2018)

Continuing on with my focused reading for Black History Month (and also continuing my focus on my own TBR), I selected “BlackkKlansman: A Memoir” by Ron Stallworth (2018) since it met both of those criteria. My curiosity was also piqued by the movie (directed by Spike Lee) on the book’s events, so the title seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me.

I wasn’t that well-versed in what the book actually covered (apart from an African-American man infiltrating the KKK – a true story), and so I entered the read with a mostly-open mind about it. It turned out that it was both a better AND a worse read than I had originally expected.

To the narrative: Ron Stallworth was a young detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, at a time when he was the very first POC to hold that coveted law enforcement position. At the same time as having to prove his worth to his colleagues, he also applied (as a lark) for membership to Colorado Springs branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, Stallworth is black. Yes, to the Ku Klux Klan. So, how did this actually work?

Before I read the book, I had the idea in my head of Stallworth attending the meetings in person but being hidden by wearing the stupid bedsheet uniform of the KKK, but it turns out that he didn’t actually attend the meetings but sent in a (white) surrogate, which in retrospect was the safest and most sensible thing to do. (I just had it different in my head.)

So the Colorado Springs KKK accept his application (without knowing that Stallworth was black) and the detective continues to develop his relationship with the leadership of the pretty small group by only having telephone conversations and sending this other guy to the actual F2F encounters. It’s actually quite funny to think about this African-American law officer having detailed phone conversations with a local leader of the KKK. (I was also rather glad that the KKK leader is also portrayed as being highly incompetent and badly organized but with high goals for increasing membership.)

The actual campaign of undercover KKK membership only continues for a few months, but in these weeks, Stallworth manages quite a lot of contact with various KKK officials, including David Duke, the Grand Wizard (dumb name). However, as the book continues and I turned the pages, I started to become pretty distracted by several things which detracted from the narrative plot.

One was that the book was really terribly written. I understand that Stallworth is not a professional writer, but that’s what editors are for. However, in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author goes out of his way to thank an editor for his work on the writing, so it may have been that the writing had been even worse than before it had been edited. (Hard to imagine – repetition galore. Poorly organized points. More repetition. Holding grudges longer than 20 years for former work colleagues and supervisors. Leaving out important points that make it hard to follow. More repetition… The readerly cringing never ended.)

And, after all this (and after more than 200 pages), as Stallworth is summarizing up the operation, he admits that it didn’t actually achieve anything of note re: the KKK. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t really add important previously-unknown knowledge to the files. He’d also “lost” the only photo that proved he did what he did with David Duke (and he bragged about this to no end – but come on. Show me the money! ;-)) This actually became endlessly irritating for me as the reader and when I turned that final page (because I stubbornly refused to DNF this one), I was pretty annoyed at having wasted my time (and money) on this.

I think that Stallworth was brave to attempt to infiltrate a group such as the KKK (that’s the good thing about the book), but in the end, it seemed like a lot of fuss for not much result, so I’m not sure how good the associated movie is going to be (unless they take some creative leaps in how things turned out).

This could have been such a good read – it’s a brave project but the courage is rather covered up in the author insisting on airing his personal slights to former colleagues (repeatedly) and professing to having lost some of the evidence (apart from a notebook and a few files). To add to this, Stallworth reports that the Colorado Springs Police Chief made the whole case “disappear” from official records and so there is no trace of it actually happening.

Hmm. It all makes me rather wonder about the whole situation. I’m pretty disappointed in this read as it could have been sooooo much better and I’m very surprised that the publisher actually went ahead and published it as it was written. It was a shame in the end.

Good story but so spoiled by the other factors that you just couldn’t appreciate it in the end. Probably not going to see the movie (even though I like Jordan Peele).

The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

“When this book was first published, I hoped it would soon become only a history of what racism used to be. I feel profound regret that it has not.” Lois Mark Stalvey.

When I was reading through “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) last semester, I found it to be an amazing resource for several things, one of which happened to be a bibliography of further reading. That’s where I came across mention of Stalvey’s book, considered by some to be a historical publishing landmark in terms of sociology and racial awareness in the U.S.

Piqued by the title, I tracked it down in the university library… And then, I even read it. 🙂

A biography of sorts, a journey in many ways, Stalvey’s book recounts her (and her family’s) gradual awareness of racism in its many forms in the U.S. in the 1960s. At first just living on the peripheral edge of racism’s impact, the Stalvey family (who were White and who are led mostly by Lois) slowly become more knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement and its importance. Seeing it negatively impact their friends, family and community, this social “awakening” (of sorts) leads to a solid commitment to Stalvey and her husband to become deeply involved in the issue. And involved they get. The family jumps in with both feet first.

This autobiography of a family’s experience of one of the most troubling social ills of our time was eye-opening for me in several ways. I used to think I am quite informed about the issue on the whole, but to actually LIVE it, every day… To commit your family to the cause with such focus is the stuff of legend. The Stalvey family didn’t just walk the walk.

It’s especially amazing when one considers the time period when this occurred. It’s the early 1960s. Racism is rampant throughout the country. Segregation is widespread throughout the American culture and there is a lot of societal resistance to any changing of the ways (notably from the whites). There are increasing pockets of violence and unrest in the larger cities, and the U.S. is facing one of its toughest challenges: how to integrate (or even if they should integrate). It reads as though the place is a tinderbox (which it was in many ways).

As the book continues, you read about the family and their efforts to effect change: among their friends, in the community, and in the larger area of federal impact (such as housing and education). The family face ongoing racist resistance from their neighbors; they lose friends and have to move to different cities from time to time, but their commitment doesn’t waiver. (They are scared. They are worried. But they don’t lose their bravery.)

Looking back at this time from the twenty-first century, it’s very sad and disheartening to see how far we haven’t come. The Civil Rights Movement was more than 60 years ago, and the country has improved in some ways. That’s true. But reading this book was a constant reminder of yet how far the U.S. has to travel to make the promises of yesteryear come true.

This was an astonishing and very sad read for me. It has removed any doubts I may have had about how societally-entrenched racism and other social ills are in the fabric of our world here in America, and I finished the book feeling rather low about any hopes for change in the future.

But you have to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and keep on truckin’. Change comes. It may not come on my timetable, but its forward movement is incremental but inevitable. Educate yourself first. Then do something about the world around you. It’s evolving, but crikey. It’s slow.

Step by step…

Incoming Titles: Update

The lovely FoL group had a half-price book sale a weekend or two ago, and who am I to turn down such a kind invitation to see what new titles I could find? So, I went and I found. 🙂

I really tried to stay on target and not fill up my shopping bag (since the December FoL Book Sale was still so recent), but I did find one or two titles to fit my needs!

Bottom to Top:

  • The Not so Big House – Susanka (really good interior decorating/design book).
  • Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975) – epistolary novel that I saw somewhere that looked good and the library didn’t have its own copy. ETA: Read. Post to come.
  • Olive Kitteredge – Elizabeth Strout (2008) – the first novel introducing an interesting character – there’s been a recent release of a follow-up title, but since I couldn’t remember the original story, thought I’d better reread this before picking up that new one!
  • Bettyville: A Memoir – George Hodgman (2015, NF/auto).

And then I had briefly mentioned that quick visit to the bookshop on Venice Beach but didn’t give the deets on the title that I bought there? Here it is: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)… I’ve heard a lot about it from the British bloggers and I was waiting for it to come out in paperback. Very looking forward to that read!

ETA: I’m already reading the Evaristo book. Wow. It’s good. Here’s my review.

Me – Elton John (2019)

Whatever you might think about (Sir) Elton John, he’s not boring and this autobiography (written with help from Alexis Petridis, a British music critic) brings descriptions, one after the other, of how Elton’s life was so far from normal in so many ways. And yet, this well-written book also brings to the surface how pretty typical Elton is himself as a person. It’s fascinating. It’s intriguing. It’s utterly hilarious in places. (I adored Elton’s self-deprecating comments.)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to buy some tickets to see Elton John on tour locally when he came through our particular city. I wasn’t that jazzed to see him: “…but come on – it’s SIR Elton John and I bet it’ll be a laugh” sort of thing. As it turned out, my mum was also in town for this so we took her for her first rock concert.

And I have to admit that Elton John was superb in his performance that night. He plays for a long time – much longer than others have – but you look forward to every song since he’s got such an impressive songwriting collection (along with Bernie Taupin) that the odds that you’ll hear the same song twice is remote – and he was an excellent performer. My mum was thrilled to this day.   

So, I was already predisposed to liking this autobiography since Elton had given us such a professional concert performance and thus, you may not be surprised that I loved this read.

I’m not an Elton John superfan. I don’t have every song on vinyl, I don’t know his music history particularly (outside the typical Top 40 stuff)… so the fact that I really enjoyed this read just underscores how interesting and superbly-written this autobiography was. There was no need for any grammatical nit-picking of any kind, so it was a well-crafted book.

I think what really pulled me into this read was my perception that Elton (in the voice/perspective used in this book) comes across as a pretty decent guy who is an experienced musician who has trodden down some (self-made, at times) hard roads and has learned something along the way. It’s an education that I trusted because, from his recollections in this book, his life has had such twists and turns that it would be impossible to continue being untouched by it all.

And there seems to be everything in this book, from his pretty awful parents and his mum’s (must be) mental illness to his search for love to addiction troubles to where he is now, and the logical and well-organized content flows from one incident to the next. It’s very well done. There’s a lot of content – it must have been exhausting to actually live it! – but it’s never overwhelming and although some of these situations are really negative, it’s presented in a manner by Elton so that you know he knows (and recognizes) how OTT some of this is and that’s how he is. (He’s not arrogant about it, but more as though he rolls his eyes and looks skyward with chagrin when he thinks about his earlier life.)

I just loved this read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, early days though it may be, on the Favorites List at the end of the year.

And I’m not the only one who enjoyed this. Here is the NYT’s book review columnist Janet Maslin’s review. And here’s Joe Lynch from the Guardian. Heady stuff.)

Top Book Titles for 2019

Like so many others in the book-blog sphere, I enjoy taking a look back at what I’ve read over the past twelve months of 2019 – some have been complete winners and some not, but overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve read.

Big trends in choosing my titles have been mostly in choosing POC titles and topics and preferably the combo of both titles/authors of color. This has been eye-opening for me, and is a trend that will definitely continue over the future. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t really have to search out names and topics… Until then, I’m going to carry on this special effort to continue that focus until it’s a habit. It’s up to me to educate me, after all.

To the Top Ten Reads of 2019 (in no particular order):

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001) (F). A novel written around the time that I grew up in England so brought back many happy memories. Plus written in a very creative structure and approach. I have the sequel on the TBR. <rubs hands with anticipatory delight>

Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931) (NF/African-American/History). Just an amazing piece of historical lit… Should be required reading.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018) (F). An excellent fictional read written about Native Americans in the modern world by a young Native American writer.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017) (NF/history/Native American). True tale of a series of early 20th century murders in a First Peoples tribe which happened to own large swathes of land with oil reserves on it…

Greengates – R.C. Sheriff (1936) (F). A lovely straightforward mid-century British novel.

Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women – Nina Burleigh (2018) (NF/biography). Very useful in trying to understand (if I can) our perplexing president. If this is how he treats his spouse(s)… <smh>.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddartha Muhkerjee (2010) (NF/Science/Medical). Fascinating history and biography of cancer.

Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) (NF/sociology/African-American/race). (No blog post [only due to job busy] but you might check out this list of related AfAm NF titles I’ve read…) A timely NF that looks at race and how it plays out in the country today. Valuable on so many levels. We also saw the author speak – wonderful as well.

The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955) (F/short stories/spec pic). A collection of different spec fiction stories written by a master writer.

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015) (F). I know the author for his amazing NF book about a Siberian tiger, but here, he’s writing fiction about the plight of Mexican immigrants… (Interesting to compare this work with the recent palavar about American Dirt/Jeanine Cummins [2020]. See here for an article from Slate about it all.)

The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993) (F/spec fiction/sci fi). Really good sci fi novel by one of the first (and best) sci fi authors of color (also a woman). Try it even if you’re “not into sci fi”. It’s a good read, however you categorize it.

Other annual reading-related statistics:

  • Total pages read: 25,253 (average: 275 pp).
  • Total number of titles read: 94. (Compare with 2018: 77.)
  • DNFs for the year: 4.
  • Male: 42.
  • Female: 41.
  • Mixed gender (e.g. an anthology etc.): 11.
  • POC: 30 (for a total of 32%). Close to one in every three titles. Go me. 🙂
  • NF: 54 (57%)
  • F: 40.
  • TBR Titles: 60 off the TBR (of 64% of the total read).
  • Oldest title: 1836 (Charles Dickens/The Pickwick Papers).
  • Longest page number: The Thornbirds/McCullough: 692 pages.
  • Shortest page number: 32 pages (The Snowman/Raymond Briggs).

Happy new year (and happy reading ahead) to all!

December 2019 Monthly Reading Review

Artist: Nikolai Antonov.

December is wrapping up. It was a busy month but mostly fun, having Christmas and end-of-the-semester in there plus a great trip to New Orleans. (More to come on that trip.)

The reading was pretty good as well:

  • All-American Murder: The Aaron Hernandez Story – Alex Patterson (NF Sports). I know – a book about American football and me? But strangely interesting…
  • London and the South-East – David Szalay (F) Random pick of library shelves. Not bad…
  • Home-Fires: The Story of the WI in WW2 – Julie Summers (NF/History) Very good history of the Women’s Institute in England…
  • New Orleans: DK Guide. Travel guide.
  • Catchphrase, Slogan and Cliche – History – Judy Parkinson (NF/history)
  • Paddington Goes to Town – Michael Bond (F) Really needed something fairly easy and straightforward to read immediately post-semester!
  • The Snowman – Raymond Briggs (F/GN). See above.
  • English Country House Murders: an Anthology – Thomas Godfrey (F). See above.
  • Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah (F-Short stories). Challenging but in a good way.
  • Total books read:  9
  • Total pages read:   2511 pp. (av. 279 pp.)
  • NF4 (44% of monthly total)      
  • F: 5 (56% of monthly total)
  • TBR: 8 (89% of monthly total read). Go me.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 64%. (Happy with this number.)
  • Library:  
  • POC author/topic(s): 2 (22% of monthly total). Will. Do. Better.
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 2 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 0
  • Oldest title: 1969 (Paddington Goes to Town/Michael Bond…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 533 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 32 pp.

And – strangely enough, no relevant book review posts either. (There were some other posts but not about the actual books, which is weird for a book blog, yes?) I can only attribute this aberration to running out of time and energy at the end of the semester, but trust you’ll forgive me. 🙂

There was a lovely visit with my mum and, naturally, we completed a jigsaw or two, the large one was only completed with super-human effort by us both in an effort to finish it before she left early the next day. Completely fun and very worth it.

Just a fun little holiday puzzle… (500 pieces)
This was the puzzle that we needed to speed-complete. It was also the largest one (1000) — of course. 🙂

Moving into the new year, I don’t really have any complicated reading plans. I’m definitely going to partake in the Non-Fiction November when it comes around, but apart from that, I’ll take it as it comes. I might do Simon and Kaggsy’s Year Project but again, pretty open-ended on that right now.

I’m collecting info for the Best-of-Year blog post, but might skip the Best-of-Decade post that is traveling around the blogosphere right now. Depends on time…

Whatever your plans, wherever you may be – here’s to a year of peace and plenty for you. (Oh, and some good reads as well.) 🙂

FoL Winter Sale Goodies…

We had the annual winter sale for our local FoL and as usual, there was an abundance of goodies for all… (I know. It’s not that I *needed* some new titles, but who am I to turn down unfettered access to tons of good new-to-me titles?)

So, let’s go through which titles made it through my marketing filter (with rather big holes!). At the top pic, from L-R (vertical titles):

  • The Pottery Barn: Bathrooms (NF)
  • The Pottery Barn: Living Rooms (NF)
  • Workspace (another interior design book)

Moving to the horizontal pile, from the bottom up:

  • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals – Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy (NF)
  • On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays – John Stone and Richard Reynolds (eds.)
  • Essays of E.B. White – E.B. White (love me some E.B.) (NF)
  • The Rosie Effect – Grahame Simpson (F) – continuation from The Rosie Project
  • The Barrytown Trilogy – Roddy Doyle (F)
  • Old New York – Edith Wharton (F)
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful – James Herriot (NF? F?)

And then this pile as well above (<smh>) bottom to top:

  • “Dress Your Best” – Clinton Kelly and Stacy London (NF). ETA: Read. Meh.
  • “What Not to Wear” – Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine (NF). ETA: Read. Meh.
  • “If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home” – Lucy Worsley (NF – social history)
  • “Lost Country Life” – Dorothy Harley (NF)
  • “Days of Grace” – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (autobio)
  • “Great Tales of English History 2” – Robert Lacey (really interesting historian about UK history)
  • “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African” – Allison, ed. (NF/bio) 1798
  • “The Free People of Color of New Orleans” – Martha Gehman (NF/history)

And then this with the most gorgeous cover pic: “Living Earth” by DK Eye Witness (just love this series of books):

<rubs hands together with glee at glorious reading ahead>

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village – Ronald Blythe (1969)

“…making a strange journey in a familiar land…”

From the introduction, Akenfield (1969).

What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.

I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.

I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.

“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”

Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).

Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers, ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged in general).

In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).

This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the 1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be replaced by an unknown future.

Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in England. Highly recommended.

There’s also a 1974 film (loosely based on the book with Blythe himself playing a cameo role and in process of being digitized by the British Film Institute) and there’s an interesting article from the UK’s The Observer newspaper about a new study that will explore rural communities and the surrounding changing countryside (similar to Blythe)…

And here’s one about Akenfield 50 years on… (from the Daily Mail) and a Canadian author, Craig Taylor, has written an updated version of the book, Return to Akenfield (published in 2003).

Btw, the characters are real, but Blythe fictionalized the place using conversations with people from the hamlet of Debech (where Blythe actually lived) and Charsfield just 10 miles outside Ipswich.

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