After having had a three-month book-buying ban (which ended on May 01), there has been a lack of incoming titles to the JOMP TBR. However, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t accept a lovely literary present from a friend and it also meant that I could order books which arrived after that arbitrary date.
And thus, we have the following new titles to gloat over:
Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library – Wayne A. Wiegand. NF. I’ve been discovering pod casts on my daily work-out walks (since the gym is closed), and one of my favs is the one called “The Librarian is In” from the NYPL team. The cast features Frank and Rhonda (it was Gwen), and it’s just a funny and bright discussion about the wide variety of books that they have both picked up over the previous month. (I think it’s monthly.) Anyway, the guys were talking about the history of African-American libraries in the US and mentioned this title so off I toddled online and bought it. Basically, it’s about what it says in the subtitle: the history of American public libraries. <Rubs hands with glee>
The Secret Life of Cows – Rosamund Young. NF. My kind mum sent me a copy of this and I haven’t got around to reading this yet (although it’s short). I really wanted to get established in my head as a vegan eater before I could read about how lovely cows are, so now I’m definitely eating that way, I can read about cow sweetnesses. 🙂
The Best American Travel Writing 2019 – Alexandra Fuller (ed.). NF. I thoroughly enjoyed my read of the travel writing the other day and so procured this volume, hoping for a similar experience. 🙂
And then a friend popped by (social distancing-wise) and dropped off a lovely art book called “Boundless Books: 50 literary classics transformed into works of art” by Postertext. A fabulous book to look at, it has lots of real classic books included, but by reducing the actual text of the books to a tiny size, the company has created art. Take a look here:
(Above) This is the actual text from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but see how each word has been shrunk to create more different art? And, even better, the book includes its own magnifying glass so you can actually read these tiny words. Here’s another page:
Here is the entirety of Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”. Clever, right?
So, I’ve been looking at this, drawing dragons for a 4yo friend who lives next door, doing jigsaw puzzles and — deep breath – completing final grades for my students. I’m hoping that’s complete now, but we’ll see who is happy with their grade and who is not. 😉
Travel writing at its best… relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale.”
Paul Theroux, Introduction.
Seeing as we have been rather stuck at home, I thought that now would be a really good time to read some travel writing and, having had some success with this series in the past, found an old volume on the old TBR shelves. I did have some hesitation seeing the editor was Paul Theroux (only because I’ve heard of his reputation as a rather grumpy writer), but pulled it down nevertheless, primarily because it was what I had. 🙂
In actuality, despite my initial reservations, this turned out to be a really good read. As with any kind of writing collection chosen by whoever is the editor, there are going to be hits and misses but this compilation was mostly hits, which made it fun to read.
(The only slightly eye-wincing moment was when I saw that Paul Theroux’s eldest son, Marcel, was also selected as part of this collection of American Travel Writing. One, the optics don’t look that great for a father to choose his own son’s writing for inclusion in a project such as this, and is M.T.’s writing so much more superior than anyone else’s who was up for submission? Oh, and the gender split of authors was a bit eye-watering. This then leads on to related question: how many of these selectees are POC?)
Looking through the index, the selected writing travels far and wide: from Siberia to the U.S. and parts in between, the quality of writing and its content was enjoyable. In fact, it was a really good read overall and actually hit the sweet spot for reading in a pandemic. Plus it fit really well with my COVID reading style which seems to be rather a scattershot approach at the moment. Plus it was a TBR.
Excellent writing came from Peter Hessler (who I adore anyway), Susan Orleans, and 24 other authors, with a gender break-up of five female authors (and 19 males). Grumble, grouse, but this lack of gender balance is a common characteristic for these editions (especially when they are edited by males). Is it really so hard to find someone who is a strong writer and is not a typical white male? Hmm.
Moving on… The majority of these reads did exactly what they said on the tin: excellent writing combined with strong descriptions and interesting narratives of places off the beaten track.
Despite its weaknesses (see above), I actually really enjoyed this volume and have just realized that I haven’t bought the 2019 volume just yet (edited by Alexandra Fuller – Hey! A woman slipped into the mix. I’m a bit behind with the book-buying.) This year’s volume (2020) will be edited by Robert McFarlane, another white male Oxbridge fellow, I see (with gritted teeth)…
Still, fingers are crossed to a more balanced gender breakdown inside both of these…
In the end, I am happy to have read this volume and able to travel outside my home, even if it was only in my mind. Along those same lines, I did just go to the grocery store, which counts as adventurous travel in this day and age. 🙂
Wandering around the library stacks the other day, I ended up in K’s in Fiction and, in trying to find another book, came across this one and its really lovely book cover. (Gorgeous colors! It mentions stationery!) Not being familiar with either the title or the name of the author, I read the cover copy and was intrigued. It was a library book. It was by a person other than a white one. And I was in the mood for something from another country, regardless which country that was. So – with nowt to lose, I checked this copy out.
So what’s it about? It’s fiction set in Iran in both 1953 and present day (2013), and focuses on the lives of two characters in particular: two young people (in 1953) whose lives were impacted and interrupted by both Iran’s revolution and its cultural mores.
Kamali’s plot revolves around the stationery shop in the title and its bookseller owner as he comes into contact with his customers. It’s quite a clever structure to make the whole plot revolve around this handful of characters who overlap with this bookkeeper in some way, so it was an effective approach.
Two young Iranian lovers arrange to meet and get married at a certain time and at a certain place. To their dismay, their meeting location also turns out to be the same place as where a large political demonstration occurs at that very same time. Chaos ensues, the couple miss each other, wonder what happen but go on to live their lives apart anyway. Much regret of each about the lost opportunity but life sorts itself out – until…. Pivot. Then comes the twist.
Structurally, the book has some jumping around in it, flipping (as it does) from the chaos of the ongoing revolution in 1953 to modern-day Iran and the US, and at first, I had it fairly sorted out but, as the book continued (and I must admit, I let some days pass in between readings), the time jumps were a little disorienting for me. Linked with that, it seemed as though there were an inordinate number of intimately-related characters who kept popping up.
I admit. It could have been my fault for having a Monkey Mind and for letting a few days pass (and brain cells live and die) between the reading. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written or anything bad like that because when I finished the read, it was as a satisfied reader. So no doubt it’s a good book, but I think I had to sort of gear myself up a bit to refocus on all the strands of the plot and to try and weave some unity out of it all.
Although this might sound like rather a lukewarm review, this was a book that I ended up enjoying after I’d read it all, as opposed to during the actual reading process. I would certainly pick up another of Kamali’s books if that tells you something! 🙂
We ended up walking about eight miles on Monday – so our little legs were tired at the end of the day. Tuesday, however, was a brand new day and we elected to take an Uber to the Getty Center up in the hills of LA.
There are actually two Getty places in LA, both different so if I were you, I’d research both and see which one meets your needs. One is more of a villa-type place (with some museum stuff) and the other is a giant research museum with unbelievable architecture high up in the hills. That’s the one we went to and we ended up spending five hours there just piddling around looking at the various exhibitions and taking one of their docent-led architecture tours with a very entertaining person in charge. (All free, btw, and really recommended.)
Loads of things to look at, ranging from photography to Old World Artists, alongside contemporary work and the most amazing architecture (by Richard Meier). The brilliant white of the walls and corners contrasted brightly with the blue sky and it was fantastic.
The hotel we stayed with the wonderful Marina del Rey Hotel, a renovated 1964 hotel on the end of one of the many boat piers around Venice Beach. Super service, lovely people, walkable to a lot of places (including our first Trader Joe experience!) and just loved it.
My lovely mum has been staying over Christmas here in the States, first some time with me here in Texas and then a few days up in Northern California with my sister. As that trip with my sister was coming to a close, mum suddenly phoned me up and invited me to come with her on a whistle-stop visit to Los Angeles, and who am I to say no to that? So, I didn’t. 🙂
We had a fab time. In the end, it was two days in the City of Angels but we got to see a load of things in that short time. Let’s proceed…
You know how I like to research before I go anywhere interesting, but with this quick turnaround, I hadn’t had that much time to do much more than actually visit the library to pick up some info there. On the plane out to the West Coast, I learned more about the history of LA, and more specifically, the history of Venice Beach (which was the area where we would be staying).
This area of town was started, I think, by a man who happened to be a very wealthy tobacco magnate and who was enamored with Venice, Italy, after his travels there. Wanting to replicate this city on the West Coast, this guy developed some of the wetlands (on which LA was being built) and designed a neighborhood with great architecture and on the pattern of Venice, complete with actual canals and gondolas and small curving bridges to get from one side to the other. Only about three miles of these original canals still exist after all this time, and they happen to be in – guess where? – Venice Beach.
So, after quite a bit of tromping around not really getting anywhere useful, we finally asked a friendly local walking his dog if he knew where these canals were and he kindly took us there. (It turned out that this friendly local was actually an expat from Texas… Huh. Small World.)
So mum and I spent quite a bit of wandering around this neighborhood being amazed at the whole thing. The canals are still there, with water and with occasional watercraft, but the waterside does need a general spruce-up. (The real estate prices were unbelievable: one place was going for $3.6 MILLION. Another place could be rented for $12,000/month. You know, if you’re interested.)
So that was fun. We then spent some time wandering along the Oceanfront Path at Venice Beach, people-watching and beach-walking and admiring the sea. Bliss. Then, my mum’s sharp eyes spotted a tiny little bookshop (naturally!). Tucked in a corner of a bigger building, mostly a restaurant, there was the Small World Books shop, a small but excellently-stocked bookshop in between t-shirt and henna shops. A little blissful world of books, which we ended up supporting (as you do). Definitely worth a visit, but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled as it’s quite easy to miss if you’re looking the other way (at the beach, for example).
Then, after all that, our legs got tired so we walked to the hotel to chill out a bit and then have a bit of a supper. We ended up walking about eight miles on this first day. :-}
Well, hello there. I hope you and your lives are all back in balance after the rather discombobulating holidays at the end of last year, and I hope you’re all getting some good reading done.
The Superhero and I decided to take a quick break just prior to Christmas and jetted down to New Orleans (or the Big Easy, as it’s sometimes called) for a few days. It was gorgeous and we stayed at a fantastic renovated B&B (called The Monrose Row Bed and Breakfast) which was managed by a very friendly and excellent person called Cindy. If you ever need a cool place to stay in NOLA, we highly recommend this B&B. It’s close to everything (walkable for most), Cindy is a font of information about the city and where to go, and she is a great cook as well as being very friendly.
It’s an old B&B located in one of New Orleans’ many historical quarters and Cindy has made this place so welcoming. Truly. It’s also located very close to most of the places a visitor may want to see on his/her trip, and if not, there’s also Uber available throughout the city. (Assume that most trips will average out about $20+ – or at least that is what we found out.)
The last time we’d been to New Orleans was ages ago and not that long since Katrina had hit and devastated parts of the city. Now, years later, it’s hard to see any long-lasting damage on the buildings although there are now new-and-improved neighborhoods and the city itself feels a little better managed. (It might not be, but on this trip, I definitely felt it was a lot less anarchic than the last trip.)
So, tons of lovely architecture to look at and admire, much of which was specially decorated for Christmas and was just gorgeous to see…
And then, because it’s New Orleans, there’s lots of history so naturally we hit up some museums. There was one that featured an exhibit on Mardi Gras and its history (along with some actual costumes – which are amazing!) and then, we wanted to visit some plantations but only see it from the slavery perspective – not from the colonial white-man view.
After a quick chat with Cindy, the B&B proprietor, she recommended an all-day tour of two different plantations which met this requirement: one plantation from a (white – of course) woman-owned perspective (which is pretty rare) and another plantation from the perspective of African slaves who were imprisoned and forced to work there. Both of these historical experiences were so informative and really emotionally moving, especially when you learned more about the actual people who were enslaved in each place. It’s horrifying that it was real and actually happened, but perhaps people have learned from this… (One can only hope.)
That was a sobering experience for us, and after researching these plantation trips, I recognized a picture of one of the most famous white-man plantations except the pic of the place was used as an example of “glorious southern hospitality” on a Visit Mississippi ad on TV. (People – research the pics before you use them in your campaign!)
Yassum, I kin tell you things about slavery times dat would make yo’ blood bile, but dey’s too terrible. I jus’ tries to forgit. (Amy Chapman, former slave.)
All in all, a fantastic trip for us, especially in the winter months when the humidity is way down and the temperatures aren’t way up (as they are in the summer months). Totally enjoyed the trip and will be back at some point in the future. Highly recommended.
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.)
NF: 4 (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.)
POC author/topic(s):2 (22% of monthly total). Will. Do. Better.
Male to Female:5 males + 2 females + 2 of mixed genders.
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.
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.) 🙂
Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:
The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.
Let’s look a little more…
Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him).
The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)…
But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} )
As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road.
So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads.
Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside.
For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given.
War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.
You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs. (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)
So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow?
So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while. It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time.
When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale?
If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today.
For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:
Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.
Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai? You had me at hello.
This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.
So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. At this time in the world, giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating tale…
Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.
Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)
This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.
It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.
And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.
Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. Once she was there, she felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).
It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.
Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and to walk some of the same paths.
There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.
This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.
Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂