Monday, July 11, 2022

Beach Reads: Mary Jane and Oopsie, Daisy

 

What's a beach read, you ask? I've always thought the term referred to light, breezy fiction that could never be confused with school-assigned summer reading. The term was born sometime between the 1700s and 1980s. (Sorry, that's as specific as I can get. Historical research takes too much time away from my summer reading.) 

An article in The New Yorker suggests the idea of "summer reading" came about during the industrial revolution when the working class was figuring out how to take vacations by the shore. Apparently at least one Baptist preacher was against the idea of flipping the pages of frivolous books, calling it "literary poison in August." That may have given the genre a shot in the arm; or maybe it was just good marketing. In 1877 Publishers Weekly warned booksellers that summer profits could dip, so they had better do something to push titles upon the unsuspecting public during the third quarter. 

 

Fun = Vacation and Beach Reads

Either way, it worked! Turn the page and poof, every website (and every magazine, before that) had a list of summer reading, and most "Beach Reads" were ballyhooed as sexy, juicy, escapist, fun, rollicking romps. Surprise, surprise: most are marketed at women. Maybe we should take offense? Nah - it's much easier to take out our credit (and library) cards and slurp up the stuff. With a fruity umbrella drink. 

 

And I'm guilty as charged - sometimes, anyway. Here's my take on two titles that probably deserve the "Beach Read" label. Enjoy or avoid them, as you see fit. 

Mary Jane 2002 paperback


Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (Harper Collins paperback, April 2022) is a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old girl from a tight-laced family who gets a sweet summer gig as a babysitter for a much more laid-back family down the street. The babysitter's name is Mary Jane. The title also refers to the Mary Jane that laid-back folks smoked in the 1970s. The premise is far-fetched, but remember, it's a beach read. We aren't looking for the kind of believable storyline of a more classic work, like Jurassic Park. 

 

Mary Jane is hired to watch the local psychiatrist's young daughter while he focuses on helping his rock-star client through detox. The coming-of-age story is sweet, silly, and involves wearing outfits Mary Jane's mother would never approve of. Although adults in the book smoke dope, break things, and have sex, Mary Jane (and her young charge) do not. I give it a PG-rating and recommend it if you ever wore bellbottoms and a halter top. Or wanted to, but your mother wouldn't let you. 

 

Things We Never Got Over by Lucy Score (That's What She Said Publishing, Paperback, January 2022) earns an R rating, for sure. It was poorly written, completely unbelievable, and I couldn't put it down. 

Things We Never Got Over book by Lucy Score


In my defense, I'll say that I don't have a favorite junk food, I have several.


Sometimes it's a delectable sorbet with fresh fruit, sometimes it's the bottom of a bag of salty pretzels with whatever chocolate I can find and a shot of tequila. Lucy Score brings the broken bits of stale chips and a cheap bourbon chaser, and you know what? That hits a certain spot sometimes.

 

Things has a runaway bride with daisies in her hair meeting up with a hot-hunk-of-a-barber. They hate each other immediately. She has an evil twin. He won the lottery before she hit town. They fulfill each other’s needs - not all of which are sexual, but there is a six-page-sequence (and a few shorter ones) that make it clear all of those boxes can be checked, thank-you-very-much. Thrown in for good mix are a smart-mouthed tech-savvy tween, coolest grandma ever, several cute dogs, a lot of sassy dialog, a high-stakes poker game, a kidnapping, and a very sappy happy ending. It's set in Knockemout, Virginia, where all the residents work hard except when they're attending great parties, running off evil twins, or wrestling crime-mob bosses to the ground. 

 

I suspect you could find at least one Baptist preacher to damn Things and Mary Jane to you-know-where, but that would probably only serve to boost sales of both books. 

 

Whatever you read this summer, enjoy it! I'm pretty sure that's the whole point. 












Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Queen's Gambit: Book Club Pick

The first rule of our book club is that you don't have to read the book to come to meetings. Our book club is more about the people than the pages. But, if you do read the book, you should certainly endeavor to read the right book. 

And I failed, by picking up Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, instead of the Walter Tevis novel. My first thought was "this is awful! when do they start playing chess?!" 

In my defense, I was on painkillers for a back injury at the time, and had the good sense to find the proper title before I got too deep into what is apparently a very popular book about the women who survived Henry VIII


< whoops


The Queen's Gambit

I don't have Netflix (and I don't even use a friend's password, not that I haven't been offered, wink, wink) and I really like books with pages, so I got to enjoy Walter Tevis's writing in my head. 

The author of The Hustler and The Color of Money was an English Lit professor at Ohio University before he died in 1984. So, he didn't get to find out just how much the world would love his story about a little girl who rocked the world of chess. 

And clearly, it spoke to folks. Chess sets flew off shelves during the pandemic. (Hopefully assorted combinations of Librium and cheap burgundy didn't become quite as popular.)

Spoiler Alert and Book Club Questions 

For what it's worth, The Queen's Gambit is fiction through and through, but as a good writer, Tevis was a stickler for accuracy in the (lengthy, well-paced) chess sequences - even though he was not a chess player.  (Pool was his game.)

For the record, girls can play chess. Vera Menchik, born in the USSR, moved to the UK and became the first women's World Champion in 1927. Coincidence? Maybe. Tevis's heroine was born in the USA. 

More Trivial Pursuit: 

  • Although much of the story takes place in Kentucky, no sequences in the Netflix series were filmed in the state. Most scenes from the TV series were filmed in Germany.
  • Mt. Sterling, KY, is a real town near Lexington and Hope Hill Youth Services, an organization that facilitates foster-to-adoption placements, has a facility there. Coincidence? Probably not. 
  • Benny's character was probably based on Bobby Fischer. 

    Speaking of Benny, was he a love interest, or just crazy about chess? Brief sex scenes aside, I couldn't make up my mind. 

    And while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I didn't see a lot of change from most of the characters. Jolene was a tough chick when we met her; I had no doubt she was going places. Mrs. Wheatley didn't seem to change - sadly, I hoped she'd grown a spine when her husband left, and she didn't really. On the other hand, she didn't completely fall apart, so there's that. And Mr. Wheatley didn't change either, other than becoming a bigger jerk. 

    Mr. Shaibel -- gosh, I liked him. 

    Of course I didn't like the ending -  almost never do - but I wonder, was the Netflix conclusion more satisfying? 

    Next Up and Etc.


    Our next club pick is Maybe I Should Talk to Someone

    On a recent short vacation, I read Hope Never Dies. It was campy, campy, campy! Is there a word that means over-the-top campy? Because that's the word I should use. Also, I enjoyed the posthumously-published Michael Creighton title Dinosaur Teeth. Like The Queen's Gambit, it was fiction, but with a smattering of accurate, truthy details that kept me thinking, did this really happen?

    ~~~Til next time, reading friends ~~ 


    Tuesday, April 20, 2021

    Good Book Group Reading 2021

     WOW, it's been almost a year since our first book club meeting and we've had some fun and read some books. (Catch up on our 2020 titles here.) 

    Book Club During Quarantine? Great Idea! 

    Braver Than You Think helped us quench our mutual desire to travel, I think. I mean, sure she went all over and had great adventures, but she stayed in a lot of places without showers, so, you know, staying home in quarantine at least meant we had hot water most of the time. 

    We also found out it's hard to get people together (there are 12 members in our group; that's a lot of schedules to coordinate!) and especially so when we decided that meeting outside was the best bet - and baby, it gets cold outside. We had a couple of "walky-talkies" where we met for short hikes, followed by hot beverages. I bought a new thermos for the occasion. It was totally worth it to see my friends, even if we could see our breath outside, too. 

    Ann Patchett's The Dutch House was one of our last titles of 2020, as we decided to have a white elephant gift exchange instead of trying to schedule a meeting during the holidays. 


    2021, Here We Come

    So we took a page off Barack Obama's shelf, sort of, by grabbing Deacon King Kong from the former POTUS's list of "best" books of 2020, and, um, suffice to say we don't all share Mr. O's taste in novels. Lots of characters is one thing, lots of characters with lots and lots of nicknames is too much for my brain to keep straight. That said, boy did I love some of the author's dialog. 

    Quotes from Deacon King Kong

    "Your cheese done slid off your cracker." -- Hot Sausage, to Sportcoat, the almost-always inebriated main character, when Sport is making some (more) poor decisions. 

    "Fibbling and twiddling" -- one way to waste time

    And the more philosophical: 

    "That's the thing when you get out and you're still breathing. Every day is a brand new world." -- The Elephant, but it could've easily been attributed to (Officer) Potts. 

    Sex & Drugs & Rock n' Roll

    Who doesn't love a little dose of lighthearted fiction focused on self-absorbed rock stars? Daisy Jones and the Six was a fun read, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. A Fleetwood Mac groupie card is not required to enjoy this one. 

    What's Next? 

    We have a few ideas, but if you want to share what you and your book club are reading this year, we'd love to hear from you. 

    Monday, October 19, 2020

    2020 Book Club List, Updated

    That Book Club I was thinking about starting got off to a pretty good start, especially considering how the rest of the year has been going. YAY! 

    I can't take all the credit, since roughly 120% of the success of a book club depends on its members. I may not be a math whiz, but I do know some great people. 

    Of the titles I tried to foist on (ahem, I mean recommend to) the group, I've read about half. 

    Here's a wrap-up, mostly because my memory needs a cheat sheet: 


    Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (© 2017), we read as a group. We liked it, and chatted about Cleveland burbs, adoption, race, class, and kids. Not a bad discussion ;) 

    The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick (© 2020) I and a couple of other members of the group read, and liked this. I was especially pleased with the slow-but-steady character building, and  would say the author has a deft touch. Also, some of McCormick's sentences were just pure joy to read. Only con: I really didn't learn anything about professional wrestling. Well, there's still time...

    The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle (© 2018) I read it and recommended it until people tuned me out. LOVED this one! It was a more than pure escapism, but definitely a lighter read. I'm pretty sure this will land on my top 5 titles of the year list.

    Miracle Creek by Angie Kim  (© 2019) After reading this, I was slightly disappointed, and therefore glad I didn't push it on my fellow book clubbers. I think my disappointment stemmed from this: I wanted Kim to be my next Kingsolver, and she surprised me by being more of a John Grisham. OK, so I'll read something else from her... but I'm not really in a hurry. 

    Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (© 2012) - SO MUCH FUN! Like a light version of The DaVinci Code and THE COVER REALLY DOES GLOW IN THE DARK, so there's that. :D

    The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms (©2019) haven't read it, decided it sounded a little trite. I might try it if someone tells me it's awesome. (Have you read it?)

    Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (© 2020) --- Um, we read it as a group, and I'd give it more than a "Meh" rating, but frankly, I think the writing got in the way of what could've been a more enjoyable story. I reviewed it on Goodreads, in case you're interested. 

    D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose (©2019) Haven't read; keeping it on the 2R list.

    Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (© 2019) My dad's reading this one. He's a tough critic; I'll see what he thinks. 

    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (© 2017) I need to read this, if only for the brain exercise. For the record, one member of our book group listened to it. Yes, I do think I should get credit for having some brainiac friends. 

    And in the Movie Corner? 

    I haven't even seen Emma yet. Should I? 

    Got an opinion? I'd love to hear it! 

    Monday, March 2, 2020

    If I Were Starting a Book Club in 2020

    If I were starting a book club in 2020, I would start by collecting some of my very favorite people and we would all be so busy it would be nearly impossible to get together. I would almost give up. Then, I would take a deep breath and JUST DO IT. Of course, if you give a girl a book club, she's going to have to pick a book... and THAT could prove darned near impossible too. The girl might even give up and start a movie club instead. 

    But wait, it's me. And I'm a gotta-read-it-before-I see-it kind of girl. So...if I were starting a book club in 2020, I might start with one of these titles. 

    NOTE: This is a round-up of reviews from Goodreads except where otherwise cited.

    In this Corner: FICTION


    Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng © 2017

    Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
    In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
    Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
    When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia's.

    Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

    The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick © 2020

    “The Gimmicks is a gorgeous epic that astounds with its scope and beauty. With empathy and humor, McCormick unravels the ties between brotherhood and betrayal, love and abandonment, and the fictions we create to live with the pain of the past. This novel will blow you away.”

    In Chris McCormick's The Gimmicks, his follow-up to the acclaimed 2017 linked-story collection Desert Boys, the glitz of pro wrestling proves a welcome counterbalance to the otherwise somber story of Avo and Ruben, two Armenian cousins whose involvement with a militant Armenian liberation organization has unsurprisingly tragic results (McCormick is of Armenian descent on his mother's side). Sweet, gigantic Avo provides much of the book's charm, while his conniving cousin keeps the plot moving. The result is engrossing, but McCormick doesn't quite get the ratio right. Fewer gimmicks, ultimately, would have served The Gimmicks well. 


    The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle © 2018

    We’ve been waiting for an hour. That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.

    At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends within her utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

    When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

    Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, The Dinner List is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.



    Miracle Creek by Angie Kim  © 2019

    In a small town in Virginia, a group of people know each other because they’re part of a special treatment center, a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions from infertility to autism. But then the chamber explodes, two people die, and it’s clear the explosion wasn’t an accident. 

    A showdown unfolds as the story moves across characters who are all maybe keeping secrets, hiding betrayals. Was it the careless mother of a patient? Was it the owners, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? Could it have been a protester, trying to prove the treatment isn’t safe?



    Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan © 2012

    The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they "check out" large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele's behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore's secrets extend far beyond its walls.

    Select Reviews that Made Me Laugh
    -positive and mood-uplifting!
    -It all just seemed so...amateur.
    -I found this book cover glowing in the dark last night.


    The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms  ©2019

    Overworked and underappreciated, single mom Amy Byler needs a break. So when the guilt-ridden husband who abandoned her shows up and offers to take care of their kids for the summer, she accepts his offer and escapes rural Pennsylvania for New York City.
    Usually grounded and mild mannered, Amy finally lets her hair down in the city that never sleeps. She discovers a life filled with culture, sophistication, and—with a little encouragement from her friends—a few blind dates. When one man in particular makes quick work of Amy’s heart, she risks losing herself completely in the unexpected escape, and as the summer comes to an end, Amy realizes too late that she must make an impossible decision: stay in this exciting new chapter of her life, or return to the life she left behind.

    But before she can choose, a crisis forces the two worlds together, and Amy must stare down a future where she could lose both sides of herself, and every dream she’s ever nurtured, in the beat of a heart.
    Smart, savvy writing turns a predictable plot into a humorous and heartwarming read about a single mother’s journey to self-awareness.

    Real person's review
    This was a fun, quick read. It was sort of generic and predictable, but I still enjoyed it. To be a bookish book, it didn’t have many book references. I wish it would’ve had more.


    Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore © 2020

    A remarkably inventive novel that explores what it means to live a life fully in the moment, even if those moments are out of order.

    It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order...

    Hopping through decades, pop culture fads, and much-needed stock tips, Oona is still a young woman on the inside but ever changing on the outside. Who will she be next year? Philanthropist? Club Kid? World traveler? Wife to a man she’s never met? Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Margarita Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story about the burdens of time, the endurance of love, and the power of family.

    Real person's review:
    Every New Year's Oona is transported to another phase of her life - for instance she jumps in time from an 18 year old to her 50 year old self overnight. She may end of up in the future around people she doesn't know at that point - even a husband - Complicated - I know right? That is the concept of Oona - she's living her life out of order. There were parts of this story I actually found heartbreaking - don't let the cover fool you into thinking this is just a funny contemporary story. Imagine your in the future and know that a loved one is no longer there and then you go back in time and they are - would you try to change things? There are some very thought provoking elements of the story that I am left thinking about and I actually will miss reading about Oona.


    …and in This Corner: NON-FICTION


    D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose ©2019

    The dramatic, untold true story of the extraordinary women recruited by Britain's elite spy agency to sabotage the Nazis and pave the way for Allied victory in World War II.

    In D-Day Girls, Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified files, diaries, and oral histories to tell the story of three of these women. There's Odette Sansom, a young mother who feels suffocated by domestic life and sees the war as her ticket out; Lise de Baissac, an unflappable aristocrat with the mind of a natural leader; and AndrĂ©e Borrel, the streetwise organizer of the Paris Resistance. Together, they derailed trains, blew up weapons caches, destroyed power and phone lines, and gathered crucial intelligence—laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion that proved to be the turning point in the war. Stylishly written and rigorously researched, this is an inspiring story for our own moment of resistance, in which women continue to play a vital role.


    Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell © 2019

    How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn't true?

    While tackling these questions, Malcolm Gladwell was not solely writing a book for the page. He was also producing for the ear. In the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers, you'll hear the voices of people he interviewed--scientists, criminologists, military psychologists. Court transcripts are brought to life with re-enactments. You actually hear the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas. As Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies.

    Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don't know. And because we don't know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.


    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson © 2017

    What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day. 


    And in the Movie Corner? 

    It would have to be Emma. I heard it's based on a book. 

    Whatever you pick, here's to happy reading in 2020! 

    Tuesday, April 23, 2019

    Unsheltered and Undone: Barbara Kingsolver novels complete, what to read?

    Kudos to me: I really know how to drag something out.

    I've been worried about running out of Barbara Kingsolver novels since at least 2007. And now, having finished Unsheltered, here I am.

    Packing and Unpacking the Human Condition

    I'll spare you my in-depth review of Unsheltered, because for one thing, this isn't really a review site.* Also, The Guardian ran two reviews: one very favorable, the other not-so-much. Both sides of the story, so to speak. For what it's worth, I think the AP's review was better than both of those.

    But since this is my blog, I'll admit, I didn't fall head over heels for the book. At first.

    As poet/author Kate Clanchy noted in her (not-so-favorable) review in The Guardian, the plot was difficult to follow at times. Actually, "plot" seems too strong; there was very little action. But there were two deaths, a birth, a little bit of sex, and a whole lot of backstory. So let's call this a story.

    And in the story, I found characters to love. OK, one character: Mary Treat. AND SHE'S REAL! (I love it when that happens. She studied all sorts of plants and insects, and several species of ants are named after her. Um. Did I mention this isn't really a book review site?) Treat's correspondence with Charles Darwin from the "utopian" society of Vineland, NJ could have stood alone. But it actually worked quite nicely as scaffolding for the story, so I read on. Plus, there is Kingsolver's habit of turning out great - GREAT - sentences.

    As The Guardian's Benjamin Evans points out in his (favorable) review, "Kingsolver powerfully evokes the eeriness of living through times of social turmoil."

    Indeed.

    Somehow in 400-odd pages she manages to weave bits of our modern world (Trump, Education, Corruption, Climate Change) into the broader canvas of life (greed, snobbery, love, kindness, evolution, death) and turn it into a story.

    Not bad. Except sometimes it feels like a kick in the head. But, being a good writer that doesn't want to alienate her readers, she includes enough hilarious Greek curses to make us laugh. With apologies to anyone who understands, "Putana thalasa pouse gamoun ta psaria." (Something about the whore ocean where all the fish...never mind, it probably loses a lot in translation.)

    She also includes some tantalizing prose to keep us reading. To wit, this nugget that encapsulates that oh-so-funny feeling when realize your tiresome, tyrannical father in law was once just as unbelievably hot as your husband -
    "She'd kindly offered no judgment on Willa for failing to see the resemblance, the evergreen human crime of denying the past and seeing oneself as an original." 
     So, even though I'm out of Kingsolver fiction, I'll keep reading. I haven't read picked up Animal Vegetable Mineral yet, and I know its time is coming. But what about novels? Who can recommend some great new fiction?

    Please tell me what you're reading and what I should check out at the library!

    *What do you mean this isn't a book review site?

    Funny you should ask. I started this blog about a hundred years ago because I wanted 1- some blogging practice and 2- a way to keep track of what I read, liked, didn't, wanted to read, would recommend to friends, and why. Also, I was hopeful that my reading friends would chime in and add their own seat-of-the-pants reviews. Or blathering diatribes on what they were reading. And here we are. If you'd like to submit a review, or un-review, please, do!

    Get in touch via my Facebook Page or website. Thanks for reading!


    Tuesday, April 16, 2019

    Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983

    In the introduction to her first nonfiction book, Barbara Kingsolver writes "One of the most remarkable facts of the Phelps Dodge strike is that it was carried out mainly by women." That's  understatement in action. That fact is one of far too many in this story that are remarkable - and not in a good way.

    Mining = Hard Work, Dirty Business

    My roots run through coal country. I thought I knew mining. I was so naive.

    Published in 1989, the introduction of Holding the Line offers a better overview of organized labor in modern US history than I learned in school. When the story really begins, it pokes some big holes in what we think we know about our society and fellow travelers.

    Spoiler alert: strikers were beaten, arrested, harassed, and shot at. So were their families, including young kids. They stayed on strike, lived on nothing, and the company's profits went down - a little bit. The strike eventually ended (the unions were decertified) and world copper prices started to rise again.

    There are a lot of ways to tell a story. In my opinion, Kingsolver did a pretty good job with this one, and regardless of your view of organized labor, I highly recommend the book.

    Remember - this is nonfiction. It's a hard-to-believe, but true, story.

    Company Towns Still Exist 

    In 1983 Phelps Dodge ran the most productive copper mine in North America, in Morenci, Arizona. The mining operation, like the ones in Clifton and Ajo, were physically dangerous, discrimination was overt, and the house always won, in part because the houses were owned by Phelps Dodge.

    The (only) local clinics were owned by Phelps Dodge. The police were paid by Phelps Dodge. It was a company town. That meant you got the medical care, protection, justice, food, water, education, and everything else that Phelps Dodge wanted you to have.

    And what was it like to work there? I think the examples in my history books of dangerous working conditions and company towns were taken right out of The Jungle, written in 1906, but they could have been taken out of Arizona newspapers in the 1980s.

    Unions and the Modern Reality of Discrimination 

    If you're a middle-or-better-class white person who grew up in a middle-or-better-class (white) neighborhood in the past 50 or 60 years, you probably have a warm fuzzy feeling when you think about the American Dream.

    Lucky you. Lucky me. Let's get a grip.

    Living the American Dream was, and is, a dirty, damn hard job for people with dark skin who speak a dialect that doesn't necessarily sound like "American English."

    Old habits die hard, they say. What they don't say is that some old habits don't die, they have to be killed - and it gets messy, folks. Organized labor has help some unhelpful old habits die. Before you let that upset your apple cart, please consider both sides of the story.

    Well into the 1960s, Kingsolver writes, Anglo and Mexican American men still changed in separate facilities. The company housing for Mexican workers was inferior. The Mexican workers were citizens and employees as much as the Anglos. In Morenci, the Steelworkers Union took on the housing issue in 1967. They were joined by other unions, and some of them brought only whites to the committee meetings. Why? Kingsolver quotes a union rep who was there: "The UTU guys were all Anglos - P.D. didn't let Mexicans on the trains at that time."

    To be clear, Phelps-Dodge Corporation was not the only company that actively practiced discrimination in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. I'm making another point, however. Why have I never been taught about the role unions have played in our legislative history? I wrote about employment law for a dozen years and never did I stumble across an article about how much our current "equal" opportunity society owes to unions?

    This book, ostensibly about women's roles in the strike and how different individuals came to be union supporters, teaches much more than that.

    Journalistic Perspective Remains Relevant Today

    In the summer of 1983, Kingsolver was supplementing her day job as a scientific writer by angling for freelance assignments. 

    A string of queries landed her a contract to cover the Phelps Dodge mine strike for several news publications. The book grew out of that experience, and Kingsolver notes that she grew from the experience, too, both personally and professionally. The journalism profession can't compare to mining, but I'd argue that like mining, it is harder than most people think, and more important to our daily lives and the strength of this country than most of us want to realize. 

    I want to emphasize that only a small portion of the introduction is about the writer. The story rightly belongs to the miners and it is focused on them. But the author's aside about journalism struck me as very relevant in 2019. 

    While seven or seven hundred witnesses to an event can come away with seven or seven hundred stories, the "myth" of journalism is that all good reporters will come away with essentially the same story. Psychology says otherwise. 

    "Journalists, like other mortals, must sift through the thousands of data points in their field of vision and decide which few among them really matter. That these decisions reflect our personalities is not deliberate malpractice, but a symptom of humanity."

    One Little Chapter in Modern US History

    I dog-eared a lot of pages of reading this one. Holding the Line is still available online, in many libraries, and it is well cited on JSTOR's primary sources site. I highly recommend it for anyone who reads, works, or lives in the 21st century. 

    What has become of Phelps Dodge and the mining industry? That's another story, and it is still being written today. The Tucson, AZ visitors bureau encourages vacationers to tour a copper mine near there. I wonder what Anna Ochoa O'Leary would say about that.

    Now an associate professor at Arizona University, during the strike, O'Leary was a student and one of the women who served as president of the Morenci Miner's Women's Auxiliary. O'Leary has also written a book that recalls the strike. I suspect she's still watching, very closely, as the stories there continue to unfold.