The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke (2005)

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…

Harkness with two of the young giant pandas she traveled with. (Credit: Mary Labisco.)

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.

Recommend it.

Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂

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…)

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)

tirralirra

(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?

Jessica_Anderson_(Australian_author)

Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Texas Quilts, Texas Women – Suzanne Yabsley (1986)

thumbnail_file

Abstractions of battles and hardships or colorful events and personalities of the past are rendered on the quilt’s surface, but its real meaning is the spirit of the maker.

Prowling the library shelves one Saturday, I happened to come across some local history/ fabric art titles, and this volume jumped out and in my hands. After it sitting in the pile for a few days, its turn for reading finally came, and this was a good one.

Now, I’m not a person who quilts. I am not really a sewing person, but I enjoy cross-stitch and knitted during the teenaged years, and I adore looking at fabric arts. Combine “fabric arts” with pioneer Texas history, and we were off to the races.

As the title pretty much confirms, this was about Texas history combined with the history of women and quilts, and it was really fascinating.

Living in an area with its own history of the early pioneers, I frequently see reminders of early pioneer life: the land surrounding our city still resembles the same view that pioneers must have had when they first arrived on the South Plains, and there are several historical markers and a large university-related museum which focus on these early years with an emphasis on how the early (white) ranchers lived in dugouts and other wooden structures through the years, and much of our regional population here are descended from pioneer families.

(Our city wasn’t incorporated until the 1920’s, but there were plenty of First People who nomadically passed through this area, naturally, but the actual formal formation of the city came later. It’s rather a contentious history, I’m afraid.)

So – to the book itself. I ended up making a list of notes as I read through, and so that’s what you guys are getting. Hope that works. J

  • If you’ve ever seen a cowboy film that has the actual details historically correct, you may have seen cowboys on horses with a bedroll tucked behind them to the back of the saddle. That bedroll is called a “suggan”, and was usually a heavy hand-made quilt made from old wool pants, jeans or khaki pants (usually part of the trouser leg as that received the least wear). (Also included “tailor squares”, but not sure what they are. Anyone?)
  • Suggans were usually very rugged construction, and usually the cloth pieces are sewn around the edges (similar to a traditional quilt), but suggans have one big stitch (with the threads not cut off) in the middle of each square. This was a quick way to finish the quilt, and to make sure that it could withstand cowboy life on the prairie. (Strangely enough, I saw exactly one of these in a TV interview later on that same day, and squealed as I could now recognize it as a suggan. It’s the little things.)
  • Quilts rather slid from public popularity during the American equivalent of Victorian times, but when WWI occurred, quilt-making came back to the fore with the campaign slogan: Save the Blankets for the Boys Over There (1917). In 1918, WWI was still going on, but now the U.S. was deeply involved, and so the government used most of the country’s wood supply for commercial use, and instituted “Heatless Mondays”. (This makes me wonder if Paul McCartney’s vegetarian campaign slogan of “Meatless Mondays” was influenced by this saying…)

wwI_propaganda_1

  • Texas had its first female governor in the 1930’s: Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson. (Hmm. Going to have to look at this. I thought that there had only been Ann Richards, but it seems there is another contender. Good.)
  • According to the author, quilt-making is both an individual art and a group project, depending on where one is in the process. These are the steps:
    • Step One: Making the top of the quilt. Usually an individual project involving selecting the fabric and creating whatever design s/he wants to sew with the fabric pieces.
    • Step Two: Place both the (now-finished) quilt top piece on top of the filling (batting?) and the bottom sheet, and then put the quilt into the quilting frame. (Usually a large wooden frame that holds the layers of the quilt together so that the edges can be sewn shut and the pieces joined.

quilt_frame

  • This frame quilt (see above image) was large in size, and since most of the early pioneer homes were rather small (think Little House on the Prairie), the quilt frames were on a pulley system so that the quilt-in-progress could be lifted up to the ceiling to get it out of the way for day-to-day life. It was also a popular social occasion in rural areas (as you can see from the happy expressions of the people in the photo above). 🙂 I’m kidding.
  • Quilting bees are small groups than quilting groups which are smaller groups than quilting guild(s). Huh. (I’m guessing, but I think the bee reference is to do with the idea of bees being very busy? Not sure. Just made that up just now.)
  • Other cultures have quilting as well: the African-American culture has a quilting tradition, Mexico (and remember that Texas is really close to Mexico geographically so there was lots of inter-cultural influences) had colchas bordados (or embroidered blankets), and the Navajo made quilts using vertical stands as opposed to the horizontal ones.
  • Britches quilts were made out of the unused parts of trousers when the seat of the trousers got too worn to wear. Recycle, repurpose, reuse. 🙂

 

The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

book393

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!

Catch Up Time…

catch_upWork has been a bit nutty in terms of workload, so my reading has had to slow down a bit. With my bad eye and being in front of a computer screen all day, I’m kinda tired when I get home. That plus I’m wearing contacts which means I can see great far away, but middle distance and close up are terrible. (Thus the not-much reading situation.) Hoping that will get sorted out as the days go by, but there’s quite a bit of fiddling around at the moment.

I spent a lot of today working on website issues which is, surprisingly, great fun and I really enjoy it immersing myself in HTML and other puzzles. There’s always something to do with a large website (such as work has), and I can get completely sucked in at times. I just put some tunes on in the background, and have at it. Rather fun.

Reading seems to have taken a back seat for the last few days. We’ve been catching up with some TV: Better Call Saul (irresistible sidekick series to Breaking Bad), a Netflix series called Case, we’ve started Planet Earth (BBC/David Attenborough), and then saw the Dave Chappelle special the other night. (Mostly funny, but way too many “rape jokes” for my liking. [It’s never ok.]  Dave – you can do better than that.)  ETA: I am completely off Dave Chappelle now, especially since I’ve seen his transphobic rant. Grr.) Oh, and the regulars: Bill Maher, Samantha Bee et al. I’m constantly amazed at what comes out of the White House every day, but only three and a half years to go.

Oh, and I lucked out and got Garth Brooks tickets for this Sunday afternoon’s concert when he comes to town with Trisha Yearwood. (Heehaw. Very excited as he puts on quite a show, I’ve heard. Squeee.) Slightly strange to be going to a big concert on Sunday afternoon, but there you have it. Them’s the breaks sometimes. I’m dragging SuperHero DH with me, which means that I’ll owe him a concert in return. Slightly concerned that this might entail a Disturbd or Korn concert, but I’m crossing my fingers that it’s something a bit more palatable than that.

We also bought Daniel Tosh (comedian) tickets for later this month. He’s got some hilarious set pieces with some questionable pieces in between. He’s more good than not, so we’re going. Rather looking forward to him as he has no mercy for anything or anyone. Ever. You just sit there and cringe while you’re laughing and hope that he doesn’t pick on you. :-]

The outdoor pool on campus just opened this week. Naturally, the temperatures have plummeted to the 40’s since then, but there are plenty of sunny days ahead. Looking forward to messing around at the pool soon. It’s got a curvy lazy river which is awesome to float in after a long day at the office. Speaking of office, I actually now have air conditioning. I’ve spent the last two years sweating in my office year round, and now? It’s truly great to have a nice temperature at work. Thank you, lovely hard-working campus Physical Plant people!!

So – quite a busy weekend ahead and it’s busy-fun! Great combination to have!

better-call-saul

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

book377a

Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

book386

“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18th century.

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

British_Empire_1897

(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.