Bookends: September 2020

As I see posts about pumpkin spice and cozy sweaters, the highs for the next few days are at or near 100. Autumn is my favorite season everywhere but San Diego. Here it’s wildfire season, and that’s not as fun as leaves changing color and a nip in the air and apple picking and hay rides. But there are a lot of upsides to living in Southern California, too, like seeing dragonfruit flowers on neighborhood walks (see image above).

And no matter what the season, I look forward to books.

Finished in September (13):

#BookSpinBingo card for September. I got one bingo and almost three more! If only I’d DNFed Ten Years in the Tub

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride by Daniel James Brown

1776 by David McCullough

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos by Robert Lawson

American Colonies by Alan Taylor

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel by Lawrence Hill

Black Heroes of the American Revolution by Burke Davis

Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton

Little Eyes: A Novel by Samanta Schweblin

Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr

This month’s homeschool reading took us from the pre-colonial period in North America (American Colonies), through the American Revolution (1776, Ben and Me, Chains, Someone Knows My Name, Black Heroes of the American Revolution), to the western migration of the 1840s (The Indifferent Stars Above). It would be tedious for all of us for me to go through each book individually, so I’ll just hit some of the main points:

  1. I was surprised to learn that the British occupied New York City for almost the entire Revolutionary War. 1776, Chains, and Someone Knows My Name highlighted for me just how loyalist much of the region was throughout the war and made me wonder what side I would have been on. Assuming my personality and ways of thinking would have been similar then (which is unlikely but less complicated than imagining what I would have been like had I been born in the 18th century), I feel confident that my intellect would agree with the Rebels, but it’s possible that my desire for consistency and security would have led me to side with the Loyalists as the known quantity. Or maybe I would have split the difference and hung out with the Quakers.
  2. Enslaved Black people really had no strong reasons for loyalty to either side. Both gave suspect promises of freedom although slavery was alive and well in both Britain and the nascent United States at the time. There was the promise of “all men created equal” on the colonists’ side, but we all know how limited that particular phrase was in practice, especially when interpreted by those with a financial interest in a narrow definition of “all.” Someone Knows My Name and Chains illustrate the broken promises in fiction, while Black Heroes of the American Revolution shows them in history.
  3. I’m in the middle of Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi, and that’s probably influencing how I’m reading some of this, but I feel really pissed off at the idea that enslaved Black men should “win” their freedom by fighting for one side or the other—or by fighting in the place of the person who claimed ownership of them. If all men are created equal, and if a white man is free regardless of whether he’s willing to stand at the business end of a bayonet, why should a Black man (or woman, although the options for women were even more limited) have to prove that he’s worthy of freedom? And then even for those who were free before they volunteered or for those actually “granted” freedom after the war (because not all were, which just boggles my mind, but maybe some white owners found it necessary to stay consistent in their messaging), the fight continued after the war to try and get the pensions and recognition due them for serving in the military. Black Heroes of the American Revolution is a good book and I’m glad to have read it, but it steamed me up a little to read about all of the people whose names were just forgotten when they were no longer of use to those in power.
  4. David McCullough should have read Black Heroes of the American Revolution and American Colonies before he wrote 1776. After reading so many histories and novels that take into account viewpoints of Native Americans and enslaved Africans in North America, I found the focus on only the British and white colonists during the Revolutionary War to be a little lacking.
  5. My teenage daughter and I were reading The Indifferent Stars Above together. At one point several chapters in she mentioned to me the heavy-handed foreshadowing the author was using. I made a dark joke about the kind of foreshadowing I imagined an author might use in a book about the Donner Party, and her confused look made me realize pretty quickly that until I’d joked about it, my daughter had no idea about the fate of the Donner Party. Mom of the Year!

In addition to those, my son and I finally finished Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, which we started in January when the world was a very different place. It’s a fine microhistory of the periodic table, peppered with dry British humor that almost completely went over my son’s head, but I am glad to be finished with it.

So, those were the homeschool books that we finished this month, but I also managed to eke out some time for books of my own. First, I tackled Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman because I felt left behind by my children’s critiques of the Marvel versions of the Norse gods. I found tons of great names for kittens in that book, and it also put some of Netflix’s The Norsemen in context, too.

Next came The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijnveld, which won the 2020 International Booker Prize and which was, true to its title, pretty uncomfortable to read. I like dark narrators and dysfunctional families in fiction, but at some points things in this novel go a little too far for me. The ending wasn’t bad, though. Usually endings are the stickiest bits, and I think Rijnveld did a pretty good job with this one. It’s not a great piece to promote Dutch tourism, though.

I’ve been doing Book Riot’s Tailored Book Recommendations off and on for a couple of years. Once a quarter my bibliologist chooses three titles for me based on the preferences and reviews I include on my profile and on my Goodreads shelves. Pre-pandemic, I did the recommendations-only plan, but for pandemic time, I’ve been treating myself to the hardcover plan, so once a quarter I get three hardcovers mailed to my house. It’s pretty indulgent but I had to give up coffee and chocolate and sweeteners and alcohol and haven’t had gluten or dairy since 2006, so I feel pretty okay about this indulgence. At any rate, this last round, one of the books I got—and read in September—was Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin. I finished it in one day, so a pretty quick read, and I really enjoyed it. It was creepy and did a great job of obscuring the “good guys” and “bad guys,” just like real life. That’s my favorite fiction usually—just like real life emotionally but just a little off-kilter with the details. Mmm…delicious!

By some miracle, I read one of my ARCs (from LibraryThing) this month! Wild Girls is by British TV personality Helen Skelton, about whom I knew nothing before this book and about whom I now know slightly more than nothing. The book’s not about her, per se, but it’s about adventures she’s been on for televised charity events, so readers get to learn a bit about her while she tells about the adventures. The book wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was going to be a how-to for girls who want to go on outdoor adventures but aren’t sure about the nitty-gritty to get started, like how to pee in the woods without showing your backside to fellow hikers/campers. Seriously, all I really want is a book about how to pee in the woods. Or better yet, how to pee while on an exposed, rocky, cactus-y, possibly rattlesnake-occupied southern California trail without getting my pants all wet and without showing my butt to strangers. Although I guess with that kind of intro, they mightn’t be strangers for long. (n.b.: I say “mightn’t” when I’m imagining what it would be like to be a British television personality going on outdoor adventures.)

And last but not least is John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (known as The Three Coffins in the US). It’s been ages since I read a straight-up mystery, and I’d forgotten how much reading them feels like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. This was the September locked-room read for the Agatha Christie Centenary book club I joined on Goodreads. Yes, I joined an Agatha Christie book club even though it’s been ages since I read a mystery. That reminds me, I should have put The Mysterious Affair at Styles on my TBR for October. Not getting off to a super start with this group.

To-Read for October:

One through 20 of my Litsy #bookspin list is focused on spooky, creepy, monstery reads because I really need some scary that isn’t nonfiction (and because it’s also #scarathlon2020 time). I’m leaving spaces 21-25 open as free spaces on my #bookspinbingo card and I assume those will be filled with titles from the Build Your Library U.S. History and literature curricula we’re doing for homeschool.

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month and to see the image of my reasonably successful #bookspinbingo card for September.

What’s on your TBR stack for October?

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