Persephone Giveaway Time (U.S. Focus)

Hello, fellow bookies!

In the joy of (almost) getting my grades completed, I thought I would celebrate by offering one of you a free copy of a Persephone volume, “Hostages to Fortune” by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933).

I haven’t had time to put a blog review about this read, but suffice it to say, it’s a Persephone and it’s a good fiction read. (Find out more about the book at the Persephone site here.)

Just let me know in the comments if you’d like to enter the drawing to win this particular copy. I’ll probably draw a name on Wednesday of this week (so 12/11). It’s a brand new book, one owner (me), one read through (me), so it’s in good shape.

The only caveat is that the winner will need to have a U.S. mailing address. (Sorry, rest-of-the-world!)

Bon chance!

Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor (1982)

After reading some other Naylor books, I was pretty curious about this one, Women of Brewster Place (1982) which seems to be actually the most famous one of the lot. It’s been made into a movie and a TV miniseries, was awarded the National Book Award for First Novel, and is typically the title with which more readers are acquainted. It’s also been the one that I’ve had to search the longest for!

After my first read of Naylor’s, I’ve been searching for a similar read from her pen but it seems as though that first read (Bailey’s Cafe – 1992) is actually the outlier for her oeuvre, and her work is actually much darker and strongly literate than I had initially realized. (This is not a bad thing, by any means, but does mean that I have really underestimated her writing.)

So, what about this read? This book, my third Naylor read, confirmed my feeling that Naylor is a much more complex writer than I had believed after that first read. The second read, Mama Day (1988), was a tougher more complicated read than Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and this one (published in 1982) was the one that was more broccoli (for me).

If you review the dates of when these books were published, it looks like Naylor started off with really complex narrative arcs and then gradually got easier over time, but I could be mistaken on that. There are still quite a few titles that I haven’t read just yet.

Naylor was well educated. She had an undergraduate degree in English from City University – New York, and a M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale. In fact she published Women of Brewster Place when she was still in college, which underscores that she was probably deeply immersed in lit criticism and theory at the time – perhaps one reason for the complexity in this novel.

Researching Naylor online, it’s mentioned quite often that she was really a fan of the Harlem Renaissance writers back in the 1920s (such as Langston Hughes, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston), and in fact, Naylor uses one of a few lines of Hughes’ Harlem poem as part of her epilogue of this novel. (Same reference as the title used for “Raisin in the Sun” play by Lorraine Hansbury (1959).

(And her parents were, in fact, part of that great northward movement called The Great Migration when thousands of African-Americans went north and east in search of an escape from the Southern racism.)

Obviously, Naylor was not the only African-American writer of the late twentieth-century to be influenced by this cultural movement: others include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was heavily influenced, in turn, by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), so there’s a lot going on there (and that’s before we even get into the plot!!)

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place.

The plot of this one revolves around one central apartment block (Brewster Place) which is used as the hub for meeting a group of different characters as they interact with each via these seven short stories. It’s a tapestry book with lots of different threads, but Naylor handles the introductions really well, and gives the reader enough info to keep a clear idea of each of these individuals. (Similar set up as Bailey’s Cafe in that there is a central location [almost a character in and of itself) through which a set of other people interact).

Written and published originally as short stories in Essence Magazine, each of these female characters (except the one male – but he’s been through hardship as well…) have all gone through personal hardship of one type or another which has led them along the path to Brewster Place. Individually, each character is strong but together they are stronger as a group (and this is clearly demonstrated in the last chapter when things come to a head for the women).

In her acceptance speech for the NBA (the award not the basketball league!), Naylor said that she wrote the book “as a tribute to her [mother] and other black women, who, in spite of very limited personal circumstances somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”

So, we have this group of disparate mostly female characters, who have all undergone different hardships and somehow have ended up living in close proximity to each other.

Not only are there overlapping actions between each of these women, but each separate story is also interwoven with similar dream imagery. This dream theme is repeated throughout the novel starting with Hughes’ poem about “a dream deferred”, combining it with MLK Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the dreams (delayed or otherwise) that each of the characters have themselves, and then that dream sequence {or is it} in the final concluding chapter.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying that I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life…”

Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963.

So, this turned out to be much deeper read than I first anticipated and although I may internally grumbled about this, in the end and after more research, it’s actually turned into a much more provocative read than I had originally thought.

As with most things, I think you’ll get the most out of this read if you continue to explore the book online once you’ve turned that last page. Naylor was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life, and this online poking-around can lead you down into all sorts of rabbit holes about the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, sharecropping, civil rights, and onward.

So, although this perhaps wasn’t the most *enjoyable* book in the world, I did get a lot out of it.

For another take on Women on Brewster’s Place, try this review from The Vulture (May 09 2019):

The Women of Brewster Place Cracked Open the Door for Queer Tv.

Gloria Naylor in 1992.

Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Controlled Chaos – Lucy Knisley (2019)

As an ongoing reading fan of Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel/sequential art work, I was happy to discover that she had recently released an update to her autobiographical books with the latest news about her getting pregnant and then successfully having that offspring.

What I really appreciate about Knisley is that she has no pretensions about being anything but normal – her perspective on her own life is refreshingly down-to-earth and, unusually for a graphic novel of this genre, she is not writing to heal a personal or familial trauma (apart from this getting-pregnant thing).

Plus, Knisley seems to be a very curious person (similar to how I am) and so you never quite now what to expect for inclusion in her graphic novels. (Question: is a graphic novel still a graphic “novel” if it’s true and autobiographical? Or does it then become a “graphic autobiography”? …)

At this point in her life, Knisley has now been married for a few years and she and her husband, John, decide that now is the time to start a family. It’s this topic around which the book revolves, from the overall preparation for it (she researches in much the same over-the-top-but-fascinating-to-me levels) and her work is as honest as she can be in how much she tells the reader about herself and about her life. (When I have finished one of her books, I feel as though I’ve just been having an enjoyable conversation with a good friend at a coffee shop or similar. She’s that relatable.)

So, in this particular volume, Knisley not only tracks her various attempts to get pregnant (not as easy as it sounds) while also relating a connected and wide-ranging litany of background info about women’s reproductive health, including its history and some of the science behind it as well as recounting the more personal side of things. It’s an effective mix of personal and impersonal and it’s a recipe that really works.

This blend of personal perspectives and more objective information also enables the reader to feel invested in Knisley’s reproductive life – when they have difficulty getting (and staying) pregnant, my heart went out to them at how heart-broken they were. How could something so “easy” as getting pregnant become so difficult for these two people (and others)? It’s actually a riveting story and one that I read through all in one go. (I had to know how things concluded in the end!)

Knisley presents scientific facts and debunks superstitions in a respectful manner, really saving the emotional approach for her own personal side of life, and so this makes her an effective and credible teacher for this information, some of which was new to me (and may be for you too). In fact, I really think Knisley would be a good writer for a sequential art-take on some harder science topics, if she ever decides to travel in that direction. I’d read that work, for certain. (Are you reading this, Lucy? You know. In all your spare time! Ha.)

So, much like her other reads, Knisley’s latest volume is an excellent addition to her ever-growing oeuvre. I hope the fact that she now has a toddler doesn’t signal the end of her graphic-novel days, but fortunately, there was a hint at the end of this book that there may be more to come: “It all ends right now, with a new beginning…”

Fingers crossed that Knisley continues to refreshingly document those early days of motherhood that lay ahead of her!

Other (highly recommended) Lucy Knisley reads include the following. Your best bet would be to start at the beginning and read them chronologically:

Aya: The Secrets Come Out – Marguerite Abouet and Clement Ouberie (2009)

In this, the third volume of an ongoing series about Aya, the story continues with this young woman (now in her early 20s?) in Yop City on the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. 

If you’re a regular reader of JOMP, you may recall that I’ve been an ongoing fan of Abouet and Oubrerie’s graphic series: for reference, have a look at reviews of Volume 1 (Aya) and Volume II (Aya of Yop City).

This volume continues Aya’s (auto-?) biography of life in Yop City, a middle-sized community where the protagonist and her friends all live, and this edition resumes the ongoing pattern of showing how perhaps “more typical” African middle-class families may live. 

What I really appreciate about this graphic novel series is that it shows how very “normal” (in Western eyes) life can be for folks who live in this part of Africa: how they are not dealing with what is shown on TV as typical (starving children and armed rebels impacting the stability of the country, as examples). 

Aya and her community face similar problems as comparable American women (for example, there are worries about her future career, she’s concerned with fashion and beauty, self-esteem troubles etc. and her friends go about their lives with patterns similar to those of American women of the same age). 

Marguerite Abouet
Marguerite Abouet

Interestingly, at the same time as showing these cultural overlaps, Abouet and Oubrerie also include situations that are more specific to this region of the world: one of their fathers wants to have a second bride while a male relative of Aya’s is facing issues related to being gay in a historically homophobic environment. 

So, as with the previous volumes, it’s a great mix of issues, each of which adds further to the overall narrative of helping western readers see that African nations (and their peoples) are more similar to these readers than they are different.

The art is effective and adds to the story, the actual narrative keeps you interested and although you’d would need to read the previous volumes to keep up with all the characters, it’s a good read. I really appreciated the extras that the authors had included as well, especially the family trees for Aya and her friends. (I was constantly going back and forth to remind myself who was who and how they fit in to her community – it did get a little confusing in places, but that might have been my monkey mind at the time.) 

I recommend this series if you’re interested in learning about other people, if you’re interested in intersectionality, if you’re interested in the world in general… I think I was most appreciative of the counter-narrative of the more-publicized message of African countries being full of unrest and “third-world problems”. There’s no denying that some do, but there are also those whose citizens have more overlap with their readers than they may realize. 

This would be a great series to have in a HS library to show younger readers how people may live in a world that is getting smaller and yet bigger at the same time. 

A Book on Medical Discourses in Two Parts – Rebecca Crumpler, M.D. (1883)

My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.

Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)

Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…

(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)

Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.

Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very courageous and determined she was:

  • 1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
  • 1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
  • 1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
  • 1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)

But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the medical college.)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, doctress.

So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!

Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American populations as well…)

It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:

Baby health advice (under 5s):

One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂

All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “  (Chapter 5)

If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat, Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t give the baby “soot tea”, by any means.

Saffron tea is really crocus tea?  And was popular for baby’s poop problems?

Don’t give infants a “little weak toddy” to “bring up wind and make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may “inculcate a desire for tippling in many of our weak-minded youth”.

Later on: watch out if giving your baby any alcohol: it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”  

And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)

And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.

And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them” – the habit needs to “vanish like dew before the noonday sun” …

Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).

If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom

Teething and not wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.

Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…

Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…

If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…

If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)

Reading for kids is also dangerous:
Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?

For a breast-feeding mother:

If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get hold…” !!

(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)

If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being hungry).

Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”…  But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.

Do try to avoid cholera if you can:

There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation – it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive (or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children (and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…

Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)

Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)

And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic, it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread cholera.

And who’s responsible for all this?…

Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.

Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)

(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)

Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that women “appear to shrink from any responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.

She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the weather.’’

Advice for women’s health in general:

Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren, have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).

Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)

Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.

Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.

(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…” Huh.

Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…

Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines (especially those that contract or depress muscles): “may cause suffocation and death at any moment.”

Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork, gaseous vegetables, and anything that depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should help.

Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.

Fascinating stuff!

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

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.