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! 🙂

Reading Review: May 2019

The reads for May 2019 included:

So — to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in May 2019: 10. (Hooray for summer break.)
  • Total number of pages read 3,330 pages (av. 333). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 4+ books by women. (The + is because I read an anthology which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for June include continuing the POC author/topic focus and my focus on my own TBR.  And a trip to Vancouver… 🙂

For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women – Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English (1978/2005)

Continuing with my ongoing goal of reading from my own TBR (ha!), I pulled down this title. I’ve read Ehrenreich NF before (such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America [pre-blog]) so I knew to expect a well-written and pretty thoroughly researched non-fiction read from her (and the co-author), but what I was really impressed about was the breadth (and depth) of this look of women’s health (and the accompanying [mostly male] advisers. 

So – what is this book about? It’s an almost academic survey of how the health of women (and thus women themselves) have been on the receiving end of very questionable “scientific” advice over the years, and since it was a large overview of a long period of time, it was interesting to see the general patterns of the authoritarian (mostly male) through the years. 

For example, it’s pretty well known that the Victorian woman was treated as though she was an infantile imbecile by the males (and some females) in her life, but it was amusing to see how the advice from the “scientific experts” evolved from this to the Edwardian woman (who was told that her whole life was to produce children but then hand them over to a nanny or similar) to the next generation of women who were advised to treat their children via the whole “children should be seen but not heard” paradigm, to another stage when the foci of the family was to please the child first and foremost… and so it continues.

I am hoping that the most recent trend of viewing children as “equal” in power to (or sometimes with more power than) the parents will end soon, as I am seeing the result of that in some of the college students in my classroom at times. 

(The Helicopter parent has now been replaced by the Lawnmower parent, it seems. Lawnmower parents do more than the hovering of the Helicopter parent: the Lawnmower group actually leap into their adult child’s life and mow down any obstacles for their kid. Thus, the analogy of the Lawnmower… Of course, I’m not asserting that every parent does this, but it is common enough to be a “thing” in higher ed.) 

The “expert advice” for women has also evolved in tandem with the evolution and maturation of science as a discipline, since according to Ehrenreich, almost every piece of advice has been painted with the color (and authority) of science, whether it was crud or not. People followed what these “experts” recommended, regardless of how wacky the advice was. (This also follows with the notion that women were also infantile and did not have the wherewithal to make their own health decisions.) 

(Thinking about it, it’s a horrifyingly interesting exercise to see how this is playing out right now in some of the states and their recent (anti-)abortion laws. Women are still being told how to control their bodies by large legislative bodies of ill-informed men. Plus ca change…)

So, anyway, I really enjoyed this provocative (in terms of “thought-creating”) read, and if you’re interested in medicine, in women’s issues, in medical history… you’d enjoy this title. 

(Note though that this book was originally written in 1978, but the text has been updated in pieces. The updating is a little patchy in places, but overall, it’s a really interesting read as both a piece of history and an overview of social issues.) 

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Getting some culture: two plays…

theothermozart

Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

frances-perkins-door-opened-quote

The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch – Sally Bedell Smith (2012)

book412Since we’d just finished watching the latest season of The Crown TV series, I decided that I was interested in learning more about Her Majesty (HM)* QE2, and having had an enjoyable read of a biography about Prince Charles (same author), followed it up with this bio of his famous mother.

Sally Bedell Smith is an American author who has a penchant for writing biographies of royalty, whether that is monarchy-related royalty (such as the Queen) or Camelot-related royalty (such as JFK et al.) This author can write very readable books and does so in a breezy rather People-magazine-like manner, so I think if you know that this is fairly superficial coverage of a very private and elite world, then you’ll be squared away. It’s not, however, a very heavy fact-based book, but Smith doesn’t claim otherwise really.

So this title covers the life of Queen Elizabeth II (or Lillibet, as the Queen Mother would call her) up until 2012, and the one word that jumps out at me after having read this now would be “dutiful”. Smith does a thorough job covering how QE2 has grown up, inherited the throne when she was a young 21-year old, and she seems to do a pretty decent writing job with the limited public information that the Palace office releases. (Obvs, no F2F interviews with the royal family.) (All the info seems to come from secondary sources, and thus the People magazine comparison.)

The Queen is portrayed as playing a huge role in continuity and consistency, whether complications arise from within her family or outside in the world at large. My own take on the Royal Family is that they are a link over the centuries in the history of the UK, and although they may be expensive to keep and house, they are also interesting in their right, acting as a strong lure for tourists from around the world. From this read, it was interesting to see how hard (some of) the family actually work in the Firm (the nickname for themselves), and although I can see the attraction of being a princess, it’s also a gilded cage in a lot of respects.

This read is obviously pro-monarchy, and does seem to be rather full of speculation rather than fact in places, but if you remember that the book is just a biographical take on a very private but public figure through an American author’s worshipful lens, you’ll get on ok with this. It’s not academic; it doesn’t break any new ground; there are no surprises in this, but it’s also quite a good read (despite all those caveats).

What I liked most about this biography was that it was also a useful primer for some of the history of England during the twentieth century. Despite growing up in England, I still had some huge gaps in my historical knowledge wrt prime ministers, Princess Margaret, politics, and other topics, and I found that this was a pretty useful history book (albeit in a sycophantic and superficial manner).

As I think about this, this title was (and is) tailored to the American market (myself included since I live here), and through that lens, it does what it says on the tin, simplistic though it may be. It’s a good birds-eye view of the world of QE2 and the people who surround her, and it was helpful to me to be able to put more context on some of the larger monarchical events that have happened during my lifetime.

However, I think it’s important to remember that this is more of a celebrity biography than anything, and perhaps is more of a taster of the life of HM than anything else. Despite the shallow depth, this was still an enjoyable read, and I think that it’s scratched that “The Crown” itch for a while, and opened several rabbit holes down which to chase.

Now I’m going to peruse the shelves to see what else I can find to read from the TBR pile.

  • So I did have Her Royal Highness (HRH) here, but that wasn’t actually correct. QE2 is referred to as Her Majesty (HM) as there is no one in the family who has a higher position that she does.

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

Why – Hello there. It’s me.

Negative Space Embroidery. Credit:?

Negative Space Embroidery. Credit:?

In reading other blogs (as one does), I’ve been paying attention to the individual posts that strike a chord with me, and much as I love the book reviews, I also like the personalized peek into my bloggie friends’ lives.

I really enjoy reading about how people spend their days (or at least the parts that they’re willing to share), and this makes sense as I’m a nosy parker interested in social history.

So I thought I’d let you into my life a little bit. (Don’t want to overwhelm you with my perfectly run life so I’ll give you small doses…)

Warning for Non-Domestic Readers -Domestic Details Follow for a Bit:

So – what I have done today? Hmm. Saturdays are usually Domestic Catch Up Days for me in our house: start/finish laundry (amazing how many clothes two people can wear especially when we’re both serious worker-outers!); Superhero handles groceries (what a HUGE gift as I can do it, naturellement, but god, it takes me ages as I go back and forth between the aisles and go waaaaay off the list if I’m hungry.)

End of Domestic Details Bit. Non-Domestic Details Resume Here.

At the moment, I am in a craze of wanting to attend some community-type one-time lectures or similar to learn something. I’m pretty open in what I’d like to learn – just anything that strikes my fancy, really – so I’ve been digging around and seeing what I can find.

Last weekend, I went to a local historical society presentation on the university’s Home Management School building that I hadn’t even known was there on campus where I’ve been the last twenty years or so. Wow. (It is very hidden away and unmarked so I do have those excuses.)

(I did happen to be the youngest person there and the only one in casual clothing (i.e. t-shirt and shorts), but I’m glad I attended as the other people were very friendly, the presentation was entertaining, and they had cake… :-))

In the early twentieth century, quite a few universities across the country participated in the government’s Home Management House program whereby qualified (white) women could attend university and yet still keep up their domestic skills. (Lucky them.) The program was open to (all? mostly?) women and once they had completed their courses and had the required living time at the campus’ house, they could graduate with a degree in Home Economics.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather during "clothing class" in 1911. (Credit: Univ.Wis.Mad.)

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather during “clothing class” in 1911. (Credit: Univ.Wis.Mad.)

Each university that participated in this program built a large house (called a practice cottage) on campus where a small number of young female undergraduates would live and all take part in living in and running the house, from cleaning the windowsills to cooking up a storm. (I think participants may have taken other classes but I’m not sure of that. I would think so…)

Texas Tech University did have its own Home Management House and this is where the talk occurred. The house fits snugly right into campus as it is built now, but at the time, would have been far from the other campus buildings. It was built in 1927, only four years after the university was founded and 18 years after the city was incorporated and the first railroad made its way across West Texas. So it was a pretty cutting-edge program for the time and the place, historically speaking, and was a non-threatening way that bright young women could go to university without unbalancing the status quo (of men getting a university degree).

A practice cottage at the University of Idaho. Not sure when this pic was taken, but the building stood between 1920-1966.

A practice cottage at the University of Idaho. Not sure when this pic was taken, but the building stood between 1920-1966.

I had no idea that the U.S. had this Home Management House system in place but there doesn’t seem to be much on-line about it. There are lots of old photos of other university’s practice cottages (Idaho, Iowa, Arkansas et al.) but not much otherwise so I wonder if it’s an understudied area of history. It was pretty interesting learning about it as I had not heard of it before and had never noticed this building on campus. (It’s now very close to where the academic daycare facility is, so perhaps its original founding philosophy hasn’t strayed far from its roots.)

I also happened to go to an educational offering was at the university museum and covered historical embroidery. The publicity hand-out had mentioned eighteenth century pieces so I was curious how this university (out in the hinterlands of Texas) had received these pieces. Unfortunately, there were only two of those pieces, but that’s ok. Texas is not that old in the big scheme of things, so it was only to be expected that the majority of the museum’s holding would reflect that.

Still interesting, to be sure, and had lots of twentieth century examples of embroidery on domestic linens, clothing, bags and other samples. The museum holds Come and See events that invite local people to literally come to the event and see what’s in the holdings. It’s a pretty large academic museum and has limited exhibition space, so it’s pretty fun to see what the curators and museum historians have dug out of the basement and brought to light.

As it was a Come and See event, the historical information was pretty scarce and mostly covered who the donors’ families were, but we, as audience members, did get to handle some lovely pieces.  Plus, the presenter was very well informed so that was fun as well.

Plus – bonus: there was a lovely well curated exhibition of the Embroiderer’s Guild of America pieces which were colorful, innovative and opened the boundaries of how I had previously thought of embroidery. Here’s a good link to introduce you to textile art and some of contemporary artists who made some fabulous pieces.

So – who knows what’s up for community learning next weekend? …

So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ (1980)

book333“…the path of life is not smooth; one is bruised by its sharp edges…”

This is an epistolary novel (swoon) written with the goal of bringing attention to women’s rights in Senegal and it’s certainly a powerful novel. The narrative is a collection of letters from the POV of a newly widowed wife whose husband has just died leaving two wives (herself and a much younger much newer one) and it gives a clear-eyed perspective into what it’s like to live as a woman in a polygamous culture. Her friend (to whom the letters are written) elects to leave her husband when he takes a second wife, even though doing so puts her at an economic and societal disadvantage — she must do what she must do to maintain her dignity. The narrator, on the other hand, has elected to stay with her husband when he chooses to take a second wife (although she hates having to accept this), and it is this comparison of the two Senegalese women’s lives that form the basis of the narrative structure.

senegalThe narrator’s husband has been married to her for more than 12 years – they have children and an established life together – and the new wife he takes is one of her daughter’s friends, much younger and prettier and now very much spoiled by her husband’s wealth (developed, I might add, by the support of his wife #1). Her husband now ignores his #1 family and wife (with his 12 children), and as you might expect, the book simmers with the anger of wife #1 as she relates the story of her life, both before wife #2 and after.

With the husband now dead, both wives are in the 40 days of Islamic required mourning, and this leaves ample time to meditate on her life so far. It’s a powerful construct.

Bâ writes as tightly as a spring ready to be released, and describes life in Senegal extremely well. Life in both the city and the rural villages, the early stages of the labor movement (which is what her husband has done for a career), the machinations of politics, the rights of women and children, and the oncoming unstoppable force of the end of Colonial Rule and changing societal roles – all of these mean that a New Africa is on the way whether Old Africa is ready or not.

I adored this book, although it was not an easy read subject-wise, but the pure emotion that was elicited via the text was incredible. I’m not sure what else (if anything) Bâ has written, but I will be looking for her name from now on. Highly recommended.

(Above) - Mariama Ba.

(Above) – Mariama Ba.

February 2015 Reading Book Numbers…

black-history-month_2 For February 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (F)

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (NF)

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (F)

March Book Two – John Lewis/Nat Powell (GN-NF)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (F) – post to come

Victorian Hospitals – Lavinia Mitton (NF)

  • Total number of books read in February: 5
  • Total number of pages read: 1,446 pages (av. 289 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 1 F and 4 NF
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books and 2 owned books. 0 e-books this month. (Total of 8 books off TBR pile this year.)

One special note was that I read some African-American literature (and non-fiction) which was eye-opening and fascinating for me. In case you’re interested and so they are all in one place, here’s the list:

(And more titles from POC authors on the way… I am really enjoying finding new titles.)

Goodness gracious me. I seem to not have read as many books as usual… Work has been very all encompassing which helps to explain the low numbers. Several big reports mean two tired eyes at the end of the day!

tired eyes