Merry Hall – Beverley Nichols (1951)

WARNING: GRUMPY REVIEW AHEAD. Nichols’ fans may want to avert their eyes. :-}

As sometimes occurs, I’ve been reading but the actual titles haven’t really been lending themselves to a great deal of critical thinking and higher-level commentary as do some others. <jk> That (combined with a limited amount of time) means that every now and then, you’ll have a survey-type post of recent reads. This, my friend, is one of those times. 

Let’s begin with the pretty-awful-terrible reading experience of Beverley Nichol’s “Merry Hall”. Published in 1951, this is a collection of magazine columns (I think) written by Nichols when he bought a rundown mansion out in the English countryside. Others have read this (and his other titles) and reported it as charming and funny, so that is what I was rather expecting. However, it was not to be. (And it was not to be by a really long shot. A miles-long shot, in fact.) 

It started off ok. Nichols had some glimpses of charm here and there, but as the book progressed (along with the refurbishing of the house and the garden), I found him to be quite an awful person. He was such a snob and was riddled with class awareness giving the impression that he was above everyone else (especially the workers from the village who actually did most of the heavy lifting in this renovation). He was also uncomfortably racist in how he described the people who surrounded him and don’t even get me started on his attitude to women… 

I know. I know… It was published in 1951 so wouldn’t these classist/racist/misogynistic attitudes have been more accepted during that time? I considered that line of thought, but then remembered that there were other authors who also were writing and publishing during those years who didn’t have that same approach to the other humans on earth.

Think of E.B. White, for example. He didn’t view the world in those terms at all, so I don’t think it really holds that you should excuse Nichols for his narrow-minded attitude to others as “part of that time”. My argument is that IF these attitudes were part of that time, then wouldn’t everybody have a trace of them somewhere in their writing (if they published their work then)? And “everybody” doesn’t.

And therein lies the rub. I think that other people may have the right idea (that previous well-established attitudes and beliefs fall out of favor over time), but to me, I just don’t agree that Nichols was just being a product of the 40s and 50s. I think he was actually just being a selfish twittish snob who had too much money, not enough education and not enough to do. 

So, despite the fact that LOADS of other people out in bloggerland love Nichols, I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree to disagree on that. He had some good descriptions of his garden and the plants, but GRR. I just couldn’t stomach the rest of the book so ended up with a DNF. I hope the Nichols fans can forgive me.  

(See my next post for the next reading review. Very different from Nichols!)

Vacationland – John Hodgman

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

A different kind of reading…

Last weekend was a longer break than typical since it was Labor Day, which typically signals for many people, that summer is over. (Not by temperatures since around here, we’re still in the 90s during the day, but in terms of the monthly calendar.) Seeing as we didn’t have a lot scheduled, I planned to do some shopping (shoes :-}) and a lot of reading.

(Outcome was successful, although I’m truly dreadful at buying shoes. We’ll see how this pair work out for me! But come on – leopard-skin Keds? How can you go far wrong with those? I’m trying to be on-trend this autumn (for the first time in ages), and apparently, fake leopard is very in. 🙂 )

To the reading: The Superhero had to work on Monday which meant a quiet day in our house (apart from Nova Dog barking at all those people who have the gall to walk by our house without a hall pass). I happened to clean out the magazine rack and in doing so, was reminded of two mags which I’ve had for more-than-enough time to read them. Yesterday was that day. (See pic above for deets.)

The first was a special issue from the New Yorker with a bunch of true crime stories that they had culled from years of earlier issues, and that included the old chestnut from Truman Capote (the first installment of “In Cold Blood”). I haven’t read this since my freshman year in college when I was fresh off the boat from England, so didn’t really remember much of it, but it was such a good read that now I’m interested in reading the entire book by Capote. It was the one of the earliest examples of narrative nonfiction (or longform nonfiction) and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t appreciate it for what it was when I read it back then. Now it’s on the list for the next visit to the library.

Other true crime stories were spread over the last forty years of the twentieth century but I wasn’t really familiar with the crimes they mentioned. Still – overall, a pretty good read. Glad I’ve read it, glad it’s off the pile, but one day later, pretty forgettable. :-}

The other mag that I had pulled from this pile was from a writing conference I attended last year about writing narrative nonfiction. This journal was put out by the sponsoring university and included the year’s best writing (as chosen by judges from the conference). A good selection of pretty diverse nonfiction, but as above, one day later, I can’t really remember any of the individual stories. (I am now worrying whether this says a lot about me as a reader! Maybe I need to start being a lot more intentional when I read!!)

I enjoyed this taste of nonfiction essays and learned a lot about how to structure a similar one should I end up writing something along these same lines. It was a good change of pace from longer reads and fit my Monkey Mind of the other day! Plus – off the pile and out of the house.

Win-win.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it. I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

August 2019 Reading Review

Had a good month of reading in August, the last month of the summer (for some of us). It was a mix of leisurely enjoy-the-last-few-days of break combined with the getting-ready-for-student crush, but overall pretty fun.

Here’s what I read last month:

Plans for September? Get back into the swing of things for teaching this semester, continue to read from the TBR pile, prepare for the annual FoL Library Sale (woo hoo!), and just be.

Who loves their library? I do.

Happened to pay a visit to the local library the other day, although heaven knows why as I have loads of books at home. It’s that Hunting and Gathering instinct or something. 🙂

Picked up a mix of both NF and F, but mostly NF. From bottom to top, here is what I brought home with me:

  • DK EyeWitness Books: Buildings. (Just love these books.)
  • Does This Make Me Look Fat? The Definitive Rules for Dressing Thin for Every Height, Size and Shape – Leah Feldon (NF – fashion/style?)
  • The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (F) I really enjoyed his book about an Amur Tiger (post to come) and then saw that Vaillant had also published a novel about life in the borderland… We’ll see if his NF talent translates to the F world.
  • Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner (F)
  • Africa in my Blood: An Autobiographic in Letters: The Early Years – Jane Goodall (NF) about her time in Africa studying the chimpanzees..
  • Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis… about bees…
  • How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making your Clothes Look and Feel Amazing – Alison Freer (NF) – fashion/style.

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.

Pandora’s Daughters: The Secret History of Independent Women – Jane Robinson (2002)

“I cannot but… condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their Daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noddles of their sons to the University, where they stay for no other purpose than to fill their empty Sconces and make a noise in the country…”

Hannah Wooley, Gentlewomen’s Companion (1675). 

Plucked from the TBR pile (go me!), this turned out to be a really interesting nonfiction read covering some of history’s notable women, both famous and not-so-famous, mainly U.K. and a few in the Colonies. Going back as far 25 centuries ago (!), Robinson compiles some of the names and lives of women who have worked hard to have careers (both honest and otherwise) in the name of survival (for many) and independence (for all). 

Robinson’s introduction posits the idea that, for many readers of today, the idea of female entrepreneurs and business people seems only to have really emerged and flourished during the age of Queen Victoria, but using solid research (including many first-person accounts), the author demonstrates women have been running innovative businesses for much longer than that. 

And it’s a fascinating read… Seriously. I’ve done quite a bit of reading of women’s history over the years, but this book introduced me to loads of impressive and new-to-me women, so perhaps they’ll be some new people for you to meet as well. 

The list of business women of whom Robinson makes mention includes those in a wide range of occupations, from engineers and surgeons to plumbers and pirates to an Orcadian wind-seller and a Royal Marine. The breadth of career choices would make any high school careers counsellor go into conniptions with joy, and it’s extra-amazing when it’s put into its historical context. 

 Since there were just so many interesting women about whom I learned, I thought it would work better if I gave you guys a list of just some of these fascinating people: 

JOAN DANT (c. 1631-1715) , Quaker, widow of Spitalfields weaver. Peddler in hosiery and haberdashery. Started off selling door-to-door (with goods on her back in a box). Ended up building a significant import/export business based in London, Brussels and Paris. “I got it by the rich,” she said, “and I mean to leave it to the poor.” She did. 

CATHERINE DESHAYES DE MONVOISON (d. 1680) aka “la Voisin”. Professional poisoner who sold her arsenical potions (named “inheritance powders”) to jealous ladies of the court of Louis XIV. Instrumental in the rather too-convenient deaths of various husbands who stood in the way of King Louis and his various mistresses. Convicted as a witch and burned. 

And you just have to look up the AMAZING tale of Merry “Cutpurse” Moll (or properly called Mary Frith), born in Aldgate in 1584. Or APHRA BEHN, an early spy in England (or was she?…).

ANN BONNY AND MARY READ – early pirates on the open seas around Jamaica. Wore men’s clothing and fell in with notorious pirate “Calico Jack” and his sea-faring criminal spree. Ended up being convicted as pirates, the penalty of which was death by hanging. But, they both declared themselves pregnant (which gave them some immunity and time). Probably Mary died of child-fever in jail (prior to baby’s birth) and no one’s sure of what happened to co-pirate Ann. 

“…all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall from and after [this] ACT, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the Law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanour…” (1770 Statute against the perfidy of women (George III).  

Don’t forget England’s first (recorded) female soldier and marine, HANNAH SNELL in the eighteenth century who ended up on a sloop-man-of-war going to the East Indies to fight at various places (including the siege of Pondicherry where she received twelve wounds). She ended up dying on the boat after serving five years at sea, with no one knowing until her death that she was actually a woman. She’s in the Royal Museum of Marines in England. Go her!!

“A learned Women is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like Fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a Flame…  (Mrs. Baathsua Makin (c. 1600-1676), An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673).

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was a freed African slave/doctress who was living in Kingston, Jamaica, when this story starts. Married to a Scottish guy, the couple start to run a successful hotel on the island. She then ends up visiting relatives in England and then traveled the world exploring. As part of her travels, she learned about Florence Nightingale and her work at the front in Crimea. Seacole really wanted to work with Nightingale’s group, but Nightingale refused to interview her (for being a person of African descent), so looking for other options, Seacole arranged to find an investor who then enabled her to open a hotel in Balaclava (close to the battle front) where she not only hosted guests but also gained nursing skills for anyone who needed it, regardless of “sides”. Mary died in London, and her grave is still tended to and honored by the Jamaican Nurses’ Association I wonder where her grave is…?

Books to find for future reading:

  • Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. Aphra Behn. 1688.
  • Emigration and Transportation – Caroline Chisholm. 1847.
  • The A.B.C. of Colonization – Caroline Chisholm. 1850. (Very intriguing as a historian document. Was it a kids’ book?)
  • A Lady’s Voyage Round the World – Ida Pfeiffer. 1852. 
  • Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – Mary Seacole. 1854. 
  • Mariana Starke (1762-1838) pioneer of independent travel. Wrote Travels on the Continent – set template for travel guide books after that. 

Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women – Nina Burleigh (2018)

So it’s summer break here right now (for some of us), and so that means that I get to do some serious reading. (Not “serious” reading but more about the long hours of falling deeply into a story…) Lucky me.

So, in the spirit of the holidays, I thought for the next few posts, I’d just do a round-up of some of the better reads that have come across my way over the last few weeks. There’ve been some good reads (and then some not-so-good ones), but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

First up, we started off the summer season with an impulse grab from the New Books display at the local library: “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Woman” by journo Nina Burleigh.

This title covers a small but important group of women in Trump’s immediate sphere, both historically and in the present. As the Amazon website marketing copy for the book says:

New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist, Nina Burleigh, explores Donald Trump’s attitudes toward women by providing in-depth analysis and background on the women who have had the most profound influence on his life—the mother and grandmother who raised him, the wives who lived with him, and the daughter who is poised to inherit it all.

Burleigh is an experienced political journalist with experience writing for Time magazine and with a number of narrative nonfiction (and straight nonfiction) titles, I knew that I would be in good hands in terms of writing polish and skill. Plus – there was a very good chance that she and I would be in political agreement, so I quickly picked up this book.

And you know – Burleigh handles this viper’s nest with a professional and calm hand. By covering the various relationships that Trump has had with the key female figures in his life, it’s much clearer to see, perhaps, what influences these particular women have had on him (and also, naturally, vice versa).

So the stage has been set for a chronological look at who these individual women actually were/are, how they saw/see life and how they have played a pivotal role in how Trump has grown (if you can say that without wincing), how he sees women, and how he views the world in general. True or not, let me say that this was a readable and ultimately fascinating subject to read about, once you can control the bile from bubbling up in your mouth every now and then. :-{

Despite Trump’s immature view of life, these particular women have been able to guide and even direct some of his decisions along the way, and perhaps (in a case or two) managed to redirect some of the more base opinions that he’s held (both in the past and the present).

Burleigh covers each of these women through both an individual and a group lens, allowing the reader to watch how the early Trump was influenced heavily by his mother and his grandmother (probably the main influences with regard to his interior design taste – gaaagh) and then to see how as an adult (at least in numbers), Trump seems to like to have a Pygmalian-influence on all three of his wives (although only two of them were/are quite tolerant of this). His daughter seems to have more of an individual spirit, but in no way has she remained unaffected by her daddy’s flaws and goals.

Seen as a whole throughout this book, Trump is not immune to female influence in his sphere, but to me, it reads as though two of the three wives were content to let him think he controlled them (although he didn’t really), and third (Marla Maples) refused to take it from him.

From a psycho-social POV, it’s quite a fascinating read to learn about this side of the current U.S. president as you listen to the day-to-day media coverage of the wreckage of the world in his orbit right now. It doesn’t make it any easier to stomach his questionable choices, but Burleigh writes in such a way that her argument and her points seem to be very en pointe.

Obviously, this book is targeted at those who are not particularly strong fans of the current administration, so if you’re not of that ilk, you will be probably get disturbed at this content. (Even if you are of that ilk (i.e. not a fan), it’s still disturbing…)

But for those of us who see the flip side of this whole situation, I found this to be a fast and provocative read which may helpfully fill a few holes in understanding (or at least having an inkling of comprehension) of Trump’s public persona and the way that he chooses to conduct his life in the position of arguably the most powerful man in the world.

(For those readers who are hoping that Trump will be a one-hit wonder: pay attention to Ivanka (and thus the husband as well). Trump seems to have a plan of building a political family legacy…)