Tuesday, December 11, 2018

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“And so once more to the wandering Road,” declares Bryson in his 2000 book In a Sunburned Country. His previous excursions were along the Appalachian Trial in the national bestseller A Walk in the Woods, and rambles through Britain in Notes from a Small Island, and now to his visits to Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, the hottest, driest weather, and the most lethal wildlife found on the planet (the ten most poisonous snakes, sharks and crocodiles in abundance, cassowary’s with razor claws, venomous seashells, spiders galore, even fluffy caterpillars and knife-like plants).
To travel with Bryson is not to simply experience a locale, but rather to enjoy his special visions and his humor – self-deprecating, but with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, the outlandish and sublime. I lost track of how many times I laughed until there were tears running down my cheeks.  He doesn’t try to be funny at all costs, it’s just the way he is. For example, he says: “Cricket is the only sport that shares its name with an insect”, and “the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowon, Burrumbuttock, Suggan Buggan, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.”
Australia is fascinating, and Bryson has done an excellent job of telling us why – touching on a little bit of everything – history, politics, people, geology, biology, flora and fauna. Wherever he goes, he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, obliging, and quirky. He says that Aussies spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and there is nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how a snake bit Uncle Bob on his groin, but it’s okay now as he’s off the life support machine. Clearly, Bryson’s fascination and affection for Australia shines through.
On the other hand, Bryson tries to set the record straight about Australia's original people, pointing out that the Aborigines are the world's oldest continuously maintained culture and they were sophisticated enough to get to Australia from Asia by boat, long before Europeans even figured out how to sail. But he also writes about white Australians' racism and tragic treatment of the Aborigines, but acknowledges that, like most white Australians, he has had virtually no contact with the Aborigine population.
The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous performance by Bryson, who combines humor, wonder and unflagging curiosity. My only negative criticism is that the book would have benefited with the addition of better, more extensive maps.  Since Bryson was constantly on the move, I found myself frequently going back to the four maps at the beginning of the book. Pictures would have helped too. For example, here’s a panorama of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the world’s largest monolith.  Words alone don’t convey the beauty one of Australia's most recognizable natural landmarks around sunset, showing its distinctive red coloration. 

I highly recommend this enjoyable and delightful book. Bryson did a considerable amount of research before heading Down Under and his writing shows it.As the Aussies would put it, he's done a fair dinkum job.— Ken Johnson

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison says she intended her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Beloved to be disorienting. And she succeeded.  She throws readers into the internal chaos faced by former slaves, who live in a constant state of grief, anxiety, and determination. This book is the ultimate definition of showing rather than telling. As we read, our minds try to make sense of a story that is non-linear to the extreme, that is usually unclear and unexplained. But Morrison wants us to experience, at least to a small degree, what it felt like to be a slave.

"Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another," says the main character, Sethe, late in the book.

The details of what happens in the book can be difficult to determine empirically, especially for people who want all the pieces of a puzzle to fit. In Beloved, Morrison leaves us with pieces we have to imagine ourselves. This is a sensual book, not a logical one.

The story begins with Sethe living at 124 Bluestone Road, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. She’d escaped the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky with her two boys and the baby she was still nursing. She’d sent her children ahead and had a fourth baby on her way to Ohio, helped by a young white woman named Amy Denver; she named the baby Denver, after the mysterious woman.  With the help of another former slave, Stamp Paid, she made it to 124, where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs lived as a free woman, bought by her son Halle, Sethe’s husband.

Sethe has a month of freedom before Schoolteacher, who took over Sweet Home, finds her. In terror and rage, she kills her baby to keep her from slavery, slitting the child’s throat.  She is briefly jailed and then returns to 124, which is now overcome with the spirit of the dead baby. She has only enough money for the word “Beloved” to be placed on the baby’s gravestone--not enough to add “Dearly.”

The first line gives a solid clue about where we're going:

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."

The house is a character in this complex work, a haven, a protector, but also a prison and a keeper of secrets. Baby Suggs has since died and Sethe and teenage Denver live in the house alone. The two boys have run away, pushed out by the house's violent spirit. Sethe works in town, cooking at a restaurant.

Paul D., who was a slave at Sweet Home with Sethe, shows up early on. He feels the mood of the house and calls it evil. “Not evil, “Sethe says, “Just sad.” Denver disagrees, saying the ghost “is not evil, but not sad either.” What is it? "Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked," Denver says.

Paul D. may or may not be the catalyst for the arrival of a young woman who calls herself Beloved, who emerges out of the river shortly after Paul D. shows up. It’s more than 20 years since Sethe escaped the plantation, where, as slaves, both faced horrors neither can forget, or live with.

Who is Beloved? Is she actually the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child, come back to seek revenge? The clues are there—she’s the right age, she speaks with a raspy voice because she had died of a slit throat, her feet are like a baby’s, and she behaves like a toddler—an angry, spiteful one.

To Sethe and Denver, who have lived with Beloved’s ghost, it’s a given that the young woman who showed up on their porch one summer day is the baby who died in the shed behind their house.  

But to Paul D., Beloved is a threat to his happiness with Sethe, whom he has loved for decades.  And she’s a vestige of what he left behind. But Sethe’s strong feelings worry him. It’s not safe:

Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you'd have a little love left over for the next one.”  
Beloved's control over Sethe builds until it nearly kills her. Denver, originally under Beloved's spell, sees her as a danger and an aberration and finally leaves the house and goes to town, seeking help. She finds a community to support her, especially the women who come to 124, singing and praying in an attempt to rid 124 of the ghost. When the women see Beloved, they “surprise themselves by feeling no fear.” Mr. Bodwin, basically a good guy and protector of slaves, drives up. But he’s white, and Sethe thinks he’s coming after her “best thing,” her child, Beloved. This sets her into another rage. This time, Denver and the women constrain her.

Beloved disappears and a boy says he saw a woman walking into the river with fish for hair. Are we to make sense of this? We can try, but whatever it means, Beloved is gone.

Later, Sethe tells Paul D. that Beloved was her “best thing.”

“No,” Paul D. replies. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” — Pat Prijatel

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

In her massive, beautifully written and masterly account of the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the greatest untold stories of American History – the exodus of almost six million black citizens who fled the south for northern and western cities in search of a better life – forever changing the United States, especially the makeup of big cities. 
The Warmth of Other Sunsis Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wilkerson’s first book. The title is borrowed from the black writer Richard Wright who fled Jim Crow Mississippi in the 1920s.
I was leaving the South 
To fling myself into the unknown ..
I was taking a part of the South 
To transplant in alien soil, 
To see if it could grow differently, 
If it could drink of new and cool rains, 
Bend in strange winds,Respond to the warmth of other suns 
And, perhaps, to bloom.  
— Richard Wright
Between the beginning of the First World War through the end of the Civil Rights Movement, 1915 and 1970,  millions of African-Americans summoned up the courage to leave their bleak lives in the Deep South in order to give themselves and their children hope for the future. Because this pattern of migration lasted for several generations and spread over many states, it was difficult to see it happening as it occurred and most of its participants were unaware that they were part of an important demographic upheaval and dynamic shift in residency.
Wilkerson is the daughter of migrants herself and showed empathy, profound affection and compassion toward her subjects, allowing the reader to share that connection. If nothing else, Wilkerson is thorough.  She interviewed approximately 1,200 people, reviewed hordes of official records, and took numerous road trips on her way to create this landmark piece of nonfiction – to tell a story she thought everyone should know.
With stunning historical detail to describe the migration, Wilkerson focuses on biographies of three very different migrants; each representing a different decade as well as a different destination and each carrying with them a different set of circumstances that factored into their decisions to leave. The details of routine racial discrimination that these people faced both before and after migrating are horrifyingly vivid and impossible to ignore.
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, born in 1913, was a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi. They both were relegated to picking cotton.  They worked all day and all year, and at the end of it they usually broke even, which was considered lucky, because most sharecroppers ended up with nothing but debt to show for their labor, at least by the boss’s accounting. A woman was expected to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day, and she hated it. Living in a Jim Crow society with no hope for the future, in 1937 she and her husband George, and their two children secretly boarded a midnight train to Milwaukee, where her sister lived. They decided to leave because a cousin down the road was almost beaten to death by a white posse that wrongly suspected he stole some turkeys.  Fearing he would be next, and tired of working dawn to dusk for pennies, George told Ida Mae to pack up the family.  
Miss Theenie, Ida Mae’s mother, then drew them close to her, as she always did whenever anyone was leaving. She had them bow their heads. She whispered a prayer that her daughter and her daughter’s family be protected on the long journey ahead in the Jim Crow car. “May the Lord be the first in the car,” she prayed, “and the last out.”
They eventually settled in Chicago’s south side, where George found work in a soup factory and Ida Mae in a hospital as a nurse’s aide. Although blue collar jobs, the Gladney’s made the most of their opportunity, never missing a day of work, and even becoming long time home owners, and their children attended a desegregated school. Chicago became their home for the rest of their lives and they never regretted their decision. 
Before setting foot on the streets of Chicago, Ida Mae had never even thought about voting. Indeed, no black person she had known back in Mississippi would have dared to talk openly about such a right. But in the Windy City she was free to vote for the first time — and did so in the 1940 presidential election, casting her ballot for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later also voted for Barack Obama when he ran for the Illinois Senate. 
Isabel Wilkerson met Ida Mae in 1996, when Ida Mae was eighty-three years old. She was still living in the second floor apartment of the house that her family had bought in 1967. She lived with dignity and respect to be ninety-one. She died in her sleep, in 2004, at home.
George Starling, a bright and ambitious man was the valedictorian of his colored high school in central Florida, but dropped out of college when his money ran out. So he went to work picking oranges in the fields. Appalled by the working conditions, he tried to organize a work stoppage for higher wages and better working conditions, but was warned that the local growers, backed by a homicidal sheriff, were planning a “necktie party” for him. He also boarded a midnight train, which was bound for New York. He lived in Harlem where he was free to live his life as he pleased. 
As fate would have it, he took a porter’s job on the same train that once brought him north. It had a route from New York to Florida, the very place where he had so longed to escape. That’s where he became an advocate for African American passengers. Surprisingly, though, given George’s intelligence and drive, he was never once promoted away from his boringly repetitious job, one that he endured for more than 40 years.Through his faith in God, he eventually made enough peace with the south to go back to live there as an old man.
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster had the most privileged background of the three main characters. The son of demanding middle-class parents in Monroe, Louisiana, he was educated as a physician at Morehouse, the most prestigious black college in America. An accomplished surgeon, Foster had no rights to practice in the south, even as the son-in-law of the president of a prestigious black college. So he decided that he wouldn’t waste his time in the south being paid with “the side of a freshly killed hog”, and knowing that other Monroe residents had moved to Los Angeles, made the decision to travel there in his red 1949 Buick. Wilkerson writes of his long, hungry and lonely drive west where he could find no motel that would rent him a room or restaurant which would serve him—all because of the color of his skin.
One of my favorite quotes in the book, Robert said “How could it be that people were fighting to death over something as ordinary as being free to go and do as you please, like sitting in a diner with everyone else and eating a meal.” 
After an initial struggle, he had established a private practice in Los Angeles and sent for his wife and daughters.After changing his name from Pershing to Robert, even Bob, he matured into one of California’s finest surgeons, with a successful medical career which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he threw exuberant parties. Revered by all of his patients for his entire career, Dr. Foster was the personal physician of Ray Charles who wrote a song about him.  Becoming addicted to gambling, Las Vegas became a second home. He lived a wild life and lost most of his wealth at the Vegas tables. Regrettably, something in his character prevented him from ever relishing the many blessings in his life.Still, at his funeral, he was mourned by his grandchildren enrolled in Ivy League schools.
Their stories are different and unique, yet they intertwine, and are interspersed with other stories of the South. They are gripping and full of life. Having spent many days and hours with the three and their families, it is clear that she became attached to them emotionally -- personalized and humanized them – making the reader hope and root for them. 
Wilkerson uses scholarship to quash the misconceptions that the migrants were uneducated, shiftless and promiscuous. She uses census data, stating that migrants from the South were on average better educated than those who stayed and soon would have a higher level of education than the blacks they joined in the North, and even more than the northern white population.  Or that migrants had higher levels of employment. And, contrary to common belief, the migrants were more likely to be married, remain married, and less likely to bear children out of wedlock.
The Great Migration shaped America’s urban cities, their culture, the geography of neighborhoods, and the beginnings of suburbanization and housing projects. Overall, this book did a lot to explain why some cities, and even some sections of those cities transformed from white to predominately black.  It did a lot to explain how those from Georgia and Florida migrated mostly to Boston and New York, and those from Alabama and Mississippi moved to cities like Detroit and Chicago, and those from Louisiana and Texas went to California. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way.
The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable and riveting account of an unrecognized immigration throughout the United States, and nearly impossible to put aside. Through the beauty of writing, the depth of her research, and the fullness of the people and their lives portrayed, the book is a classic.  It serves as an important tool for better understanding of the trials and tribulations of black Americans in the 20thcentury.  At 622 pages, it is something of an anomaly in today’s shrinking world of nonfiction publishing, but so immensely readable as to, what one reviewer said, “would land her on a future place on Oprah’s couch.” —Ken Johnson

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorainrevealed layer after layer of fascination. The cover notes let you know what to expect: young woman grows up in the Australian outback, goes on to a distinguished academic career, and ultimately serves as President of Smith College. 

Jill Ker Conway is a thoroughly engaging writer.  She brings to this already exotic outline evocative description of time and place and penetrating analysis of herself and others.  She puts us on the sheep station where she grew up and makes us feel the landscape, the characters that inhabit it, and the highs and lows of life at the margins of the social and economic world of Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. She memorably describes the Australian national myth as exalting “epic failure,” typified by her family’s struggle against natural forces that would inevitably prevail.  

Against that often bleak landscape, Conway shows the evolution of her family’s complex relationships and her own growth in awareness and competence.  When extended drought pushes her family to move into the city, she has already formed a solid base of independence and curiosity.  Building on that, Conway vividly describes her experiences through high school and university that impelled her into a distinguished academic career as a historian.  Ultimately the limited academic opportunities and sexual discrimination she encountered in Australia led her to leave for graduate school at Harvard.  

The Road from Coorainis the first of three autobiographical works. It is followed chronologically by True North, covering a decade of academic work in Toronto, and A Woman’s Education, dealing with her time as the first female President of Smith College and a reinvention of women’s education.  — Bill Smith

[*]Full disclosure:  My mother, sister, and daughter attended Smith.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, by Sharyn McCrumb

The Hangman is a rock formation in Wake County, a rural community in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. In this charming natural setting, Sharyn McCrumb creates the second book in her Appalachian ballad series, a mystery surrounding the murder of four members of one rural family. She introduces us to a loose-knit community of independent yet interdependent locals who live along a carcinogenic river full of toxins from a paper plant and in hills once covered by chestnut trees that were all killed by a blight decades before.

This is a story about humans and nature, trials and resilience, destruction and resurrection, change and adaptation.

But who is the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter?

Could it be Nora Bonesteel, the woman who lives on the top of Ashe Mountain, who knows her neighbors’ news before they do because she has The Sight? No, not Nora. She is an incomparable character, but the description “beautiful daughter” falls a little short of incapsulating her rare personality and her inimitable power.

Or maybe it’s Laura Bruce, who ends up taking over her husband’s ministerial duties when he is sent to the Gulf War? No, she is a bit of an angel of mercy, rescuing kids of all ages from floods and fires and human suffering. But, again, “beautiful daughter” doesn't capture her. She’s more the mother.

How about Maggie Underhill, one of the two surviving children of the slain family? No, Maggie is an important character, but not a main force in the book. Sadly, like her mother, she tends to be a follower until, at the end, her life depends on forging her own way.

None of these women feels right as the Hangman’s child. If not them, though, who?

The clue to that puzzle is in McCrumb’s love of folklore and folk music, which she weaves throughout this and her other ballad novels, and in the music of a band that shares her Scottish roots. In 1967, 25 years before this book was published, the Incredible String Band, self-described as a “Scottish psychedelic folk group,” released an album titled Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. At the time. singerMike Heron explained the title: "The hangman is death and the beautiful daughter is what comes after.”

Death does permeate this novel, yet the book ends up being about life. About what comes after. This is not a grim read, but a loving, hopeful one.

McCrumb introduces bits of history and geography that add depth and intrigue to her tale. She explains that, while people in the nearby cities fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War, those in the mountains supported the Union. They had their land, their sustenance, and they wanted to keep it and to be left alone. Yet they got embroiled in the war and in what came after.

As a side story, McCrumb introduces Tavy and Taw, childhood friends, now retired, who are embroiled in a fight with the paper mill. Tavy has been diagnosed with incurable cancer that the doctor ties to the toxic river on which he has spent his life fishing. Turns out the Tavy and Taw are also the names of two rivers in Cornwall, which some locals say are enchanted.

Plus there’s Laura’s baby and Nora’s prediction and the sheriff’s fixation on Naomi Judd and her retirement from music because of hepatitis. In the end, the community pulls together, survivors helping survivors. Thanks to the generosity of his dispatcher, the sheriff sits in bliss watching Naomi in concert.

The book was written in 1992 and the themes of environmental degradation have only gotten worse. But Sheriff Arrowood would be happy to know that Naomi has gotten much better. 

— Pat Prijatel, with thanks to Jeanie Smith for asking the original question, "Who is the hangman's beautiful daughter?" and to Annie Waskom for her research on 1960s psychedelic folk bands and rivers in Cornwall.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Our Recommendations for Next Books

1984 by George Orwell
All The President's Men by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
Faith: A Journey for All by Jimmy Carter
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamottt
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek by Annie Dillard
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by 
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod
I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (book set at WDM library)
Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb
The Swimmer by Joakim Zander
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger  

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

A gorgeous, elegant, wise, and heartbreaking book, destined to become a classic. The author is a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In poetic prose, she shows how Native-Americans understand botany on a personal level. 

Her intricate essays explain that the land feeds and heals us and, when it is healthy, so are we. But when it is broken, we are as well. 

I kept thinking, "what if" throughout the book. What if we had followed Native American custom and respected the land, returning as much as we have taken, and giving thanks for the gifts of nature, instead of seeing it only as something to use for our own gain? — Pat Prijatel