Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take

Deep South
by Paul Theroux

I don’t usually review books that I don’t finish, but I find I have a lot to say about this book. I know there will be people who disagree with me because Paul Theroux is much lauded for his travel writing, and at a sentence level I would have to agree that he’s a great writer. But there was something about this book that made me deeply uncomfortable, and it was not the non-revelation that there is serious poverty in the southern United States, or that racial tensions continue to exist there.

Theroux has a high sense of self-importance and takes great pleasure in displaying how well read and well travelled he is. He repeatedly makes sweeping generalisations that are designed to demonstrate his open-mindedness or liberal politics but actually serve to make the opposite point. He keeps presenting the reader with terribly nice southern black men who turn out to have street smarts but little education, and then white men who are hideously racist and gun-crazy. He’s over-simplifying complex issues, and not in a particularly interesting way.

Continue reading “Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take”

Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Holiday in USA: New York City

Untitled

Okay, it’s more than a month since we got back from our US holiday and I still haven’t sorted through all the photos (partly because we’ve only had one free weekend, but it’s still remiss of me) so I’m just going to have to try to summarise our week there before I forget it all completely. It was an amazing trip, with far more activities on our to do list than we had time for, inevitably. It’s New York.

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Holiday in USA: Charlotte

Buddy Bear by Sharon Dowell Multiples Life is an Open Book by Brad Spencer

Charlotte, North Carolina is not likely to be a place I would go on holiday if I didn’t have family there, but there is something to be said for going somewhere that isn’t a big tourist destination. The city centre is very new, clean and shiny, with public artworks (many related to reading, which obviously I like) and plenty of trees (which again has an obvious appeal to me). There’s also a light rail system that is excellent – as long as you’re trying to go somewhere in that one straight line.

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(Belated) Sunday Salon: Back to real life

The Sunday SalonYou may or may not have noticed a lack of updates on this blog lately. I have been on holiday for two weeks and only had time beforehand to schedule one post, so there’s been a big gap. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic time away.

We have been to visit my sister (and her family) in Charlotte, North Carolina and to the city of cities, New York. Both of which were awesome. We relaxed and did lots of stuff. We ate some great food, found hidden gems and were total tourists. One day back at work and I am ready to go back across the ocean already!

Mark Illinois, Twain California Alice Texas, Walker Arizona

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Summer was departing with reluctant feet

Letters of a Woman Homesteader

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

This is something a bit unusual, and not a book I’d heard of a year ago, or one that there’s a whole lot of information about on the Internet, but it was recommended in the comments to one of my Little House reviews and it sounded like a very appropriate follow-up read, so I downloaded it to my Kindle. But then I spent a few months trying to catch up just a little bit on the teetering towers of unread (physical) books (not very successfully, I might add). It wasn’t until this month, with a few weekends away and a holiday, that I finally dusted off the Kindle and spotted this at the top of the list.

This book is essentially a memoir in the form of letters written, as the title suggests, by a woman homesteader in Wyoming in the early 20th century. Elinore, a widow, started writing to her friend and former employer, a Mrs Coney, in 1909 about the new life she was forging for herself and her daughter Jerrine in Burnt Fork. Coney started reading the letters out at social gatherings and, recognising their popular appeal, suggested she could get them a publisher. A publisher’s note at the start of the book states that little has been changed from the originals and I think this comes over in the tone.

“I am ashamed of my long letters to you, but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything.”

Which makes this a perhaps not unique but certainly unusual and intriguing historical record, as well as a very well written account of an interesting life led by an intrepid woman who seems to define “can-do spirit”.

“Summer was departing with reluctant feet, unafraid of winter’s messengers, the chill winds.”

Because this is a collection of letters, details and events aren’t necessarily recounted in a logical start-to-finish way. For one thing, the relationship between the two women writing (though only Elinore’s half of the correspondence was published) clearly changes from a largely polite one to a much closer and trusting one, so a lot of the things that are more personal appear towards the end of the book, out of sequence. There also seem to be lots of questions in Coney’s letters that Elinore tries to address, and these sometimes hark back to earlier events.

(I should clarify that I am breaking my self-imposed rule of referring to authors by their surname because Elinore’s surname changes during the course of the book and also because she is a lead character as much as an author, which I think gives me some leeway.)

But what is the story? Well, Elinore says that she felt a yearning to get away from the city and live off the land and when she saw an advert about claiming land in Wyoming she knew that was for her. She initially worked as a cook and housekeeper out in Burnt Fork but filed her own claim for land and got working on it within days of her arrival, determined to prove herself. She quickly befriends the homesteading community and other “locals” and her letters are alive with social gatherings, visits and gossip. Which is no mean feat considering many of her new friends live more than a day’s ride away. There’s also some romance for Elinore (in the strictest matter-of-fact tone, unlike her accounts of others’ romances) but above all there’s adventure.

“I got sunburned, and my hands were hard, rough, and stained with machine oil, and I used to wonder how any Prince Charming could overlook all that in any girl he came to. For all I had ever read of the prince had to do with him ‘reverently kissing her lily-white hand,’ or doing some other fool trick with a hand as white as a snowflake.”

Just as I found with the Little House books, it’s sometimes hard to believe that the USA had large areas that were wild and dangerous as recently as the 20th century. Elinore, for all her common sense and practicality, is a bit of a thrill-seeker and loves to go along for the ride (or even lead the way) when there’s someone new to visit, or something new to do. She goes hunting, visits a Mormon bishop out of sheer nosiness (Burnt Fork is very near the state line with Utah) and even follows a police chase.

In some ways I feel I shouldn’t like Elinore. She’s so “just get on with it”, she’s gossipy and she shows no interest in art, books or music that I recall. She also replicates people’s accents in a slightly racist manner and I’m pretty sure she used the “n” word about a black man at one point. And yet I’d suggest it is impossible not to like her. She sees beauty in the world and in people, and proves herself a thoughtful, generous friend time and again.

“It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes.”

She is also a great writer. Apparently she had supplemented her income before going out west by writing occasional newspaper articles and I wish more of her writing survived. I believe there is one further collection of letters to Mrs Coney that was published after this and I will certainly hunt that down, even though it was apparently far less successful than this first volume.

Published 1914 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

I had to crack every word one by one

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd

It is a while since I have been so thoroughly engrossed by a book, to the point where no matter where I was, day or night, I wanted nothing more than to be reading this book. Which of course means that it was over far too soon. So this definitely comes under the category of A Good Read.

It’s the fictionalised story of real-life anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Grimké, who was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, in a slave-owning family. But it’s also the story of the (almost entirely fictional) slave girl Hetty who was given to Sarah as a birthday present when she turned 11. The two girls take turns at telling the story, painting two lives closely linked and yet starkly different.

“The skies were bright cerulean, teeming with ferocious winds, spilling mallards and wood drakes from the clouds. Up and down the lanes, the fences were bright with yellow jasmine, its musk a sweet, choking smoke. I rode with the same drunk sensuality with which I had reclined in the copper tub, riding till the light smeared, returning with the falling dark.”

Sarah is the middle daughter (there are also several brothers – her mother is…prolific) and while considered a little plain and too intelligent for her own good, it is her wilfulness and ambition that get her in trouble. As a child she dreams of becoming the first female lawyer and devours the books that her father (a powerful legislator) secretly allows her until he realises that she is taking her dream seriously. When he shoots down that dream, it takes her many years to find another way to do something about the issue nearest to her heart – abolition of slavery.

Hetty, or Handful as she is known among the slaves, might have been happy with her lot – the cruelties of Mrs Grimké, or Missus, notwithstanding – were it not for her mother Charlotte who harbours such hatred of her lot that she devises small revenges against her owners and plots their eventual escape. Handful is practical and in many ways protected by Sarah, but between Charlotte’s unhappiness and Sarah’s abolitionist leanings, she catches the bug – the yearning for freedom.

“The man’s writing looked like scribble. I had to crack every word one by one and pick out the sound the way we cracked blue crabs in the fall and picked out the meat till our fingers bled. The words came lumps at a time.”

The other major character is Nina, Sarah’s youngest sister, who is in many ways a daughter to her. They are so close that it is never clear whether Nina’s small revolutions – from refusing baptism to writing anti-slavery pamphlets – are entirely her own, or the influence of Sarah. She’s an interesting character because she is more beautiful, more determined, more confident than Sarah, and yet it is Sarah’s lead that she follows.

I think it’s important that Kidd chose Sarah to narrate the story, not Nina, because Sarah is undoubtedly more troubled. She suffers from a stammer and, after the dream to become a lawyer is snatched away, never again feels that confidence in her abilities. She fervently feels that slavery is wrong (in fact, the day that she is given Handful she tries to grant her freedom, but of course that isn’t allowed) and more than that, she feels that women and coloured people are equal to white men in the eyes of God, but for much of her life she feels helpless to do anything about those beliefs.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly than anything I’d ever felt.”

What I thought was wonderful about this book was that it isn’t an anti-slavery treatise (after all, I think we all know these days that slavery is bad, we don’t need persuading), it’s a warm engaging story full of characters painted in all sorts of shades of grey. And there’s action and adventure too, from the terrible punishments meted out to slaves to a planned slave revolution. But there’s also romance, broken hearts, social faux pas and outright castigation. There are complicated relationships between people and there are terrible decisions that have to be made.

I also appreciated that the publishers have included quite a long author’s note at the end detailing Kidd’s historical research, including where she did and didn’t deviate from history in her fiction.

Clearly, I outright loved this book. I now plan to look out all Kidd’s previous works and hope that it all lives up to this high standard.

Published January 2014 by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The wind had a desolate sound

Little Town On The Prairie

Little Town on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I read a couple of other books in-between, but now I’m back with the Little House series. Not many left to go now. This is book 7 in the series, so this review may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

I have mixed feelings on this one. After three great books in a row, this one just didn’t maintain the standard. I mean, obviously I am now hooked and want to find out how things turn out for everyone, so I’ll keep reading the series, but there was something missing here.

This book follows on from the terrible winter of 1880–1881 and shows the Ingalls family finally back on their feet, getting the land producing and getting used to the town of De Smet as well. Certainly, plenty of things happen – Mary finally leaves for the blind college in Iowa, Laura has some trouble with a teacher at school, Carrie has some health troubles, Almanzo Wilder starts showing an interest in Laura, though she doesn’t seem to have figured out why yet – but I suppose after the genuine fear-for-their-lives stuff of the last few books – a plague of locusts! wild fires, wild gangs of men, seven long months of blizzards – it all feels a bit tame.

Pa is becoming a bit of a town elder. And Ma now has a church social group, though she doesn’t like the priest. Until the last few pages of the book, it’s all got very settled, but I’m not even sure that’s what bothered me. Several times, there would be a major plotline about something negative, and then with the very beginnings of a possible solution, the subject wouldn’t be mentioned again.

It’s not that I disliked this book. It still had charm and great characters. I guess now the family’s settled there’s not a lot of historical stuff here for me to learn, but there are still anecdotes that stuck with me enough that I found myself recounting them to people who ask me about my reading.

“The wind had a desolate sound. The sun was small and the sky was empty of birds. On the endless dull prairie the grasses lay worn-out and dead. The schoolhouse looked old and gray.”

First published 1941.

Source: Google Books.

Cold purple shadows rose in the east

By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I may have been sold on this book by the section where Ma mourns the lack of trees on the prairie. I do love me some trees. This is book 5 in the Little House series, by the way, so this may contain spoilers if you haven’t read them.

Laura’s getting all grown up! I almost don’t want to carry on with the series now, but leave them all here, with 13-year-old Laura interested in that Wilder boy only for his beautiful horse. Wilder has apparently skipped the few years her family spent running a hotel in Iowa so that her fictional age and real-life age finally match up. This might be because she had a baby brother who died during that time, which isn’t exactly kids’ book material. Or it might be because living in an established town and running a hotel doesn’t fit the pioneer theme of the series.

Despite skipping over the baby brother, this book has a pretty depressing opening. Obviously bad stuff does happen in life and Wilder chose not to omit all of it from the books, so she threw it all into the opening chapters of this volume (or that’s how it felt reading it). The first chapter is actually a bit of a catch-up because a couple of years have passed since the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Carrie is no longer a baby, but now there’s new baby Grace. And they’ve all had scarlet fever, which has caused Mary to lose her sight, so Laura must be Mary’s eyes. (This is actually rather well dealt with and reminded me a lot of the Helen Keller book I read recently.)

Once again Pa has itchy feet. He wants to go out west but Ma will only agree to go where there will be a school nearby, so they head to Dakota, where a new town is planned for the following spring on the path of a railroad that’s under construction.

I enjoyed the children riding on a train for the first time, and the combination of excitement and fear that came with that. I liked the interactions with some very different people – the construction crews and fellow would-be settlers are a wilder lot than the townfolk they’ve left behind in Plum Creek.

In this book I really felt how much this series is teaching me about the history of the USA. It is so strange to be sat here in a house that’s older than the town the Ingalls family helped to create, back in 1879. Obviously this is a children’s book so it doesn’t go into the politics of the population boom in Dakota, or the question of it being a territory rather than a state, but the fact that I have gone and looked up that history says something about Wilder’s ability to drop in just enough detail to pique interest. Some details might well be coloured by hindsight – did Pa really talk about how all the buffalo are gone because white men have come and shot them all? Or is that 20th century Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking? But really I don’t mind that and it’s interesting to see what Wilder does choose to comment on.

On reflection, a lot happens in this book. It meets the same criteria as Plum Creek, in that it’s well written but also has plenty of story and isn’t hideously racist. There is actually a slightly dodgy character who’s half American Indian but he’s Pa’s friend and Laura really likes him so Ma’s distrust passes as just one character being racist, rather than Wilder herself.

“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.”

Published 1939 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

Cosy and comfortable in their little house

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I didn’t read the Little House books growing up, nor did I watch the Little House on the Prairie TV show, but they are referenced so often and are clearly so beloved that I thought it was about time to rectify the situation. Also, thanks to a bit of a mini lupus flare I’ve been struggling a bit with reading lately so I thought it might not hurt to try a few children’s books!

At this point I have read three of the series and I must admit it took me a while (a book and a half) to be won over but I am now engrossed and want to read the rest of the original Wilder books. I am intrigued by the decisions she made about which parts of her life to write about (albeit fictionalised) and which facts to retain, change or drop entirely. No doubt her publisher had some part in these decisions, but she was also apparently heavily influenced by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was already a successful writer herself when she persuaded her mother to write down some of her stories of childhood.

On reflection, this first book paints the picture that appeals to me the most. But I am predisposed to like woods (I grew up in the Forest of Dean). The life of the Ingalls family (Ma Caroline, Pa Charles, big sister Mary, baby sister Carrie and Laura – aged five – plus their bulldog Jack) sounds idyllic, in a basic, rustic kind of way. They live, as the title suggests, in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin, with Laura’s grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all within a few miles in the same woodland. They have a small garden and raise animals or hunt for their meat. They make a little money from selling animal pelts to buy the few things they need that they can’t provide for themselves.

Not a lot happens and, while it’s fun to learn how maple syrup tapping works or how Pa makes his bullets, this book wasn’t especially gripping. It must have been less idyllic than described or the family would never have left, but nothing in this book gives you a clue as to what was wrong with this life. (I suppose you might suggest the lack of schools or the opportunity to make a little more money, but neither of those is any more available in their next home.) The writing is also a little simplistic – of the three Little House books I’ve read so far this was the one that felt most clearly like a children’s book. Ingalls referring to herself in the third person, as Laura, also threw me at first, but I guess that’s just a clear marker that this is fictionalised.

“They were cosy and comfortable in their little house made of logs, with the snow drifted around it and the wind crying because it could not get in by the fire.”

Remembering how long ago these books were written, and how much longer again it is since the time in which they’re set (1868 onward), I’ve tried not to judge them on things like gender politics and racism, but as you’ll see from my mini reviews through the next couple of weeks, there are some things I just couldn’t ignore!

Published 1932 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Project Gutenberg Canada.