Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

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Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)

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“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.

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(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.

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The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?