Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben Miles

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben MilesThe Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3) by Hilary Mantel
Narrator: Ben Miles
Series: Thomas Cromwell #3
Published by Macmillan Audio on March 10, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.

What a fantastic close to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga. Mantel is a gifted storyteller, and in her hands, Cromwell emerges as a deeply complex man who rose from nothing—the son of a blacksmith in Putney—to one of Henry VIII’s chief counselors. This book covers Cromwell’s fall from grace, and though I knew how Cromwell’s story would end—it’s a matter of recorded history—I dreaded seeing it come to pass. He inspired love and loyalty among his family and servants, but jealousy and ire among Henry VIII’s circle.

One aspect of Mantel’s characterization that I appreciate most is the wry sense of humor she gives Cromwell. I listened to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies prior to listening to this book, and it struck me that this book had more humor in it, though you might not expect that to be the case, given Cromwell’s well-documented end. As with other people who “crossed” Henry VIII, Cromwell’s downfall was swift. I won’t share any spoilers here, but let’s just say his ending was particularly sad—unfair blame and betrayal.

Ben Miles does a great job with the narration. Seems other reviewers didn’t like him (based on reviews left on Audible), and I’m puzzled as to why. The audiobook had a great interview between narrator Ben Miles and author Hilary Mantel.

I’m counting this book for my February read set in Western Europe in the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi Harris

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi HarrisDarius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Narrator: Michael Levi Harris
Published by Listening Library on August 28, 2018
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 8
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Darius Kellner doesn’t make friends easily. He gave up on the Boy Scouts years ago—to his father’s lasting disappointment—and after being diagnosed with depression, he quit the neighborhood soccer club, too. As the only Persian boy at his Portland high school, he’s an easy target for Trent Bolger and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy.

Then Darius goes to Iran for spring break (and despite what the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy say, it’s not to join ISIS). He’s visiting his mother’s hometown, Yazd, to meet his family—and his ailing grandfather—for the first time. But Darius speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows the Silmarillion better than the Shahnameh. Even surrounded by Persians, he can’t fit in.

Not until he meets Sohrab Rezaei, his grandparents’ Bahá’í neighbor. Darius is drawn to the lonely boy who helps water his grandfather’s fig trees, and the two strike up a tentative friendship, filling their days with pick up soccer, trips to the Jameh Mosque, and walks through Dowlatabad Garden.

But things in Iran are far from perfect. Darius’s grandfather’s health is failing. His dad is more distant than ever. And when Sohrab faces family issues of his own, Darius is powerless to help—or to hold their hard-won friendship together.

But he still has to try.

My school is considering this book as an all-school summer read, and as an avid reader and English department chair, I agreed to check it out to see if it would be a good candidate. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book. Darius is a great character, and the book’s setting in Yazd, Iran offers a counterpoint to other texts set in the country. Khorram depicts the country’s beauty and heritage, and Darius quickly falls in love with it.

I loved Darius’s interest in tea and geeky pursuits such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I especially approve of his fandom for Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was my show, too. I also liked the way Khorram handled Darius’s navigation of questioning his sexuality and getting to know grandparents he has only ever seen on Skype.

I teared up when Darius and his father finally have the talk that has been brewing for most of the book. I definitely want to read the sequel, especially since the audiobook version of Darius the Great Deserves Better is also narrated by Michael Levi Harris, who did a superb job with Darius the Great is Not Okay.

four-half-stars

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni Turpin

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni TurpinIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Bahni Turpin
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Published by Blackstone Audio on February 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 8
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-stars

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

There aren’t many writers like James Baldwin. He wrote with facility whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I mean, just listen to him speak.

Much of what Baldwin says here is centered in his novel, as his characters wrestle with being cut out of their opportunities to find happiness and achieve their dreams. In fact, one in the novel struck me particularly hard. Fonny refers to a man who assaults Tish as a “white American,” implying that the police officer who wanted to arrest Fonny for beating the man did not see Fonny as an American. He saw a Black man, and his guilt or innocence did not matter. I realize that police brutality against Black people has a long history, but it’s hard not to see Baldwin as prescient in writing this novel in the early 1970s. He is not speaking only to the moment in which he wrote the novel, but also to our current moment.

My favorite character was Tish’s mother, Sharon. I absolutely loved Tish’s family. They were so supportive of Tish and Fonny, and Sharon set the tone when she told Tish that she would tell the family about her pregnancy. So many families have not supported their daughters when they became pregnant, let alone when the baby’s father is in jail awaiting a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Even before I watched the movie, I understood why Regina King’s performance was lauded. Sharon is a gift of a character.

I found the ending a bit confusing, so I listened to it again, and then I still had to read a summary online because I couldn’t figure out if what I thought happened at the end was what happened. Ambiguous endings do not trouble me, but this book didn’t feel like it ended. It felt like it stopped. I suppose a good comparison would be the fade to black at the end of the last episode of The Sopranos. The book also moves backward and forward in time, and it was sometimes a bit difficult to follow. Admittedly, this could have been my fault for listening to it rather than reading it. However, there are some beautiful moments in the book as well, and Baldwin’s characterization is realistic and engaging. His characters just seem like people you might know—they are intensely human.

I was able to find the film on Hulu and watched it so I could add my thoughts about the film to this review. The acting is incredible. Stephan Jones and Kiki Layne are perfect as Fonny and Tish. As I mentioned before, Regina King deserves all the praise for her performance, too. The entire ensemble cast was great. The film’s ending is a bit different, and I might argue that the film’s ending is an improvement. For one thing, it was a bit clearer, and it also ended on a note of hope. I understand Baldwin wanted to communicate something with the ending he wrote, and it’s such a beautiful love story that as a reader, I really wanted to have a little bit of hope at the end for the characters. One touch I really appreciated was a simple dedication to “Jimmy”—James Baldwin’s nickname among friends. The movie also helped me understand the book’s title. My audiobook didn’t have the explanation, but the film had some text at the beginning, and since I don’t have a paper copy of the book, I can’t verify this, but I think it was James Baldwin’s introduction to the story, explaining the name. I expected it to be set in Memphis rather than New York and was initially confused. I also loved the film’s score. It’s haunting and perfect. I definitely want to see other films by this director after watching If Beale Street Could Talk.

Bahni Turpin is an excellent narrator. I have listened to her read other books, and I appreciate her approach to the material. I highly recommend the audio version of this book, but you might want to read along to better keep track of the story.

One last treat before I close: Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a Hammer Museum curator, created the ultimate James Baldwin playlist. You just might find some blues in there.

 

four-stars

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer MacallisterThe Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark ISBN: 1728215692
on December 1, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 300
Format: E-Book
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four-half-stars

In early 1853, experienced California Trail guide Virginia Reeve is summoned to Boston by a mysterious benefactor who offers her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: lead a party of 12 women into the wild, hazardous Arctic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition. It’s an extraordinary request, but the party is made up of extraordinary women. Each brings her own strengths and skills to the expedition- and her own unsettling secrets. A year and a half later, back in Boston, Virginia is on trial when not all of the women return. Told in alternating timelines that follow both the sensational murder trial in Boston and the dangerous, deadly progress of the women’s expedition into the frozen North, this heart-pounding story will hold readers rapt as a chorus of voices answer the trial’s all-consuming question: what happened out there on the ice?

My first book of 2021! I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge. Before I share some thoughts about the book, I’d like to thank the challenge hosts for two things: 1) offering a list of recommended books for each region in the challenge, and 2) recommending this particular book, which brought me out of a reading funk and kept me up late wanting to find out what would happen next. I love participating in challenges, but I find it difficult sometimes because I don’t know what to read for the challenge, and it is refreshing to have a list of books to consider at least. I probably wouldn’t have heard about The Arctic Fury if not for this challenge, either, or at least I wouldn’t have heard of it for some months.

This book is just the kind of historical fiction I love. It puts women at the forefront of a plausible, well-researched story. I admit I struggled a bit with the notion that Lady Franklin would sink her hopes into an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of her missing husband, but I was willing to go with the premise. However, without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Lady Franklin’s actions make much more sense by the end, and I wound up finding the premise more plausible.

If this book suffers from anything, it’s a little bit of a kitchen-sink approach—the author tackled just about every aspect of being a woman in the 1850s, from race to gender to pregnancy to sexuality to limited options to the threat of violence from men. Some of the aspects included didn’t feel strictly necessary to the story but rather an effort to be inclusive. I appreciated this about the book, but I think including the spectrum of experiences should be purposeful, and it didn’t always strike me that way in this book. Some pretty serious liberties were also taken with the protagonist’s (a known historical figure) story. Even though I understood the rationale for doing so, it bothered me, and I think the only other solution would have been to invent a person who didn’t actually exist to have a similar past. Once I figured out who she really was, I was able to find out what happened to her after what she calls the Very Bad Thing after about a minute’s search.

However, the other aspects of the novel are well-researched and feel authentic, which Macallister attributes to ensuring that “each woman [on the journey] had a real-life counterpart, an inspiration from the mid-nineteenth century [she] could point to and draw from” (401). As a result, each woman was believable. I particularly appreciated that the women each had their own strengths and flaws. They seemed much more human for being well-rounded. Each woman was also given at least one chapter in her own voice, which gave them even more depth and humanity.

I also appreciated the way the story alternated between Virginia’s murder trial and the voyage in the Arctic. The alternating timelines added more suspense to the story. I actually tagged this as a mystery in addition to historical fiction, even though it’s not a traditional mystery per sé. Like some of the best mysteries, neither what truly happened nor how it will all turn out was revealed until the climactic ending.

Bottom line: I definitely recommend this one to anyone who likes historical fiction, particularly with strong women characters. The Arctic Fury is well-written and researched, but most of all, the characters are memorable, intriguing, and real. 

four-half-stars

2020: Reading Year in Review

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Happy New Year! I didn’t do my usual year-end recap yesterday, so I am sharing my 2020 reading year today instead. I read more books than I anticipated being able to, and though I was impacted by the pandemic, I was still able to read some. Here is a link to my Goodreads Year in Review. Some interesting statistics from the review:

  • I read 54 books.
  • I read 12,401 pages.
  • That’s an average of 233 pages per book.
  • My monthly page average was 1,033, or about 34 pages a day.
  • My shortest book was the children’s picture book The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, which I read as part of a project for graduate school. It’s 28 pages long.
  • The longest book I read was a re-read of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which I actually listened to via audiobook. The print version is 604 pages.
  • The most popular book I read this year was Never Let Me Go, which 974,851 other Goodreads users read. I re-read that book in anticipation of teaching it for the first time this year. My least popular book was Passable in Pink (another audiobook), which only 114 Goodreads users read.

Once again, my progress with reading challenges themselves was actually mixed. Yet again, I didn’t finish the Monthly Motif Challenge, but I did manage to surpass my goal for the Historical Fiction Challenge. One big struggle for me was blogging about what I read. After the pandemic hit, my reflections about my reading on this blog dropped off quite a bit. I am going to try to do better about blogging about my reading this year. 

The 54 books I read in 2020 break down as follows:

  • 29 books of fiction
  • 18 books of nonfiction
  • 4 books of poetry or verse
  • No dramas
  • 15 audiobooks
  • 12 re-reads
  • 1 graphic novel/comic book
  • 14  children’s books
  • 3 YA/middle-grade books

My favorites from selected categories with linked reviews if available or Amazon links if not—as I mentioned I wasn’t as good about reviewing my books this year (note: I’m not counting re-reads, only new-to-me books).

Fiction

Review of Daisy Jones & The Six.

Nonfiction

 

Review of Say Nothing.

Poetry

 

My least favorite book was John Harwood’s The Asylum. I didn’t review it here, but my review on Goodreads was

This one didn’t do it for me. I liked The Ghost Writer. If it was meant to be a parody of melodramatic Victorian fiction, then it was successful, but I’m afraid that it is meant to be sincere. It had a straight-up Scooby-Doo ending.

And that’s a wrap on my 2020 reading year. 

2021 Reading Challenges

The good news is that I am in the dissertation writing phase of my doctoral studies, and I anticipate finishing by June. Obviously, writing the dissertation will take time, but I have already made good progress, and I will have a little bit more time, I hope, to dedicate to reading, particularly reflecting on my reading here on the blog. In any case, I will certainly have more time by June.

On December 31, I’ll post my reading recap for the year, including my progress on 2020 Reading Challenges. I’m excited to try some new challenges and also to engage in some challenges that have been a part of my reading habits for years.

The Book Voyage: Read Around the World challenge is new to me. I have kept a Google Map for several years now with pins for the settings of each book I read. A challenge I used to do (seems to be defunct) involved tracking locations for reading, but this challenge is unique in that it encourages reading in different regions of the world rather than simply raising awareness of setting. I also like that the challenge author, the Book Girl’s Guide, provides reading suggestions for each region, which may make it easier for me to find books set in each region. Each month is focused on a different region, so the goal is to read a total of twelve books set in each region.

It has been a little while since I focused my reading deliberately on the South. I lived in several Southern states for many years (1989-2012), and my family origins are Southern. I have a really complicated relationship with the South, however. A family history of racial violence and slavery and a great deal of political and historical ignorance clouds my appreciation for a beautiful region with some rich history and cuisine—which I credit largely to African Americans. I don’t think I’d ever want to live there again, but I also cannot deny that it’s a part of me. I have always felt the South produced some of the best literature, and I might argue we are living through a Southern literature renaissance, especially with Black authors and cookbooks, so I am hoping to focus my reading for the Southern Literature Reading Challenge on reading BIPOC authors and cookbooks. I’m planning to participate at the “Level 2—Pull up a seat and stay a while! (Read 3-4 books)” level. However, it’s possible I might read more. It depends on what I discover this year.

I participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. This year, the challenge has a new host—the Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Historical fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. I love history, and I find reading historical fiction to be a satisfying way to learn about the past in a way that feels immediate. I am setting my goal at Victorian Reader (5 books), though it’s possible I’ll read more, which is what happened this year. For the purposes of this challenge, I’ll define any book set 20 or more years before the year of publication as “historical fiction.”

The final reading challenge is also not new to me, but I’ve never actually completed it before: the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge. It seems like each year I sort of come close, but I never manage to read all twelve books and complete each monthly motif. Hope springs eternal! We’ll see what happens this year. I do like the challenge of finding books that fit each month’s motif.

If I come across additional challenges I want to try, I’ll update this post rather than add a new one.

 

Penny Black, Penny Red

My grandfather passed away in April, two weeks before his 95th birthday. He was my last living grandparent, and we were close. When I was about nine, he got me started on a stamp collection. He took me to the hobby shop in the shopping center about a quarter of a mile from his house, and he selected a starter stamp album for me. He bought a package of hinges to fasten stamps into the album. He probably also bought me a grab bag of loose used stamps, some of them still stuck to a corner of an envelope. He showed me how to use the album, which had tiny pictures of the stamps. These albums are helpful for beginners because once you find the picture of my stamp, you just affix the stamp to the image using a hinge. Papa showed me how I could put a used stamp that was still stuck to the envelope in a small bowl of warm water, and it would separate from the paper without tearing. Then I could dry the stamp on a paper towel and affix it to my album with a hinge.

He donated stamps from his own collection to help me get started. He collected stamps from all over the world. I remember being confused about the country of origin of one of the stamps, and he helped figure out where to put it, explaining that there were “two Chinas.” I didn’t understand what he meant, but I realized later it must have been a generational difference—I had only ever known the country he called the “second China” as Taiwan. I learned a lot about history and geography from collecting stamps.

My own collection was never large. I took up the hobby again in my 20s, but unfortunately, I couldn’t really afford it at the time, so I set aside the collecting for a while. I inherited my grandfather’s collection, which might not be considered large in philatelic circles, but it’s much larger than mine ever was. He appears to have stopped collecting stamps himself around the time I was born, or at least his albums don’t appear to date past the early 1970s. He has albums dedicated to the countries of France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain (the United Kingdom), and the U.S.A. He also has many stock albums and a few handmade albums with carefully drawn templates and typed on what I recognize as his old Royal typewriter.

The stamps in his U.S. album are mounted, while the other stamps all appear to be affixed to their albums with hinges. I think a long time ago, hinges were considered relatively harmless, but these days, many collectors prefer mounts. Mounts are affixed to the album, but they do no damage to the stamps themselves, unlike hinges, which sometimes disturb the gum or the paper on the back of the stamp.

Stamp albums are really expensive, and I wouldn’t be able to find some of the albums Papa used anymore—maybe on eBay, but certainly not easily. I plan to preserve his collection and perhaps add to it, but I wanted to replace all his hinges with mounts.  This is the title page of his British stamp album.

Stamp Album Title Page

Its copyright date is 1959. I don’t have much to compare it to, but I suspect it might be a more comprehensive British stamp album than one made in the U.S. Stanley Gibbons is a stamp merchant in the U.K. The edges of the page are lighter. I am not sure what caused the discoloration, but I suspect maybe the paper on the part of the cover touching the title page is not acid-free. The pages in the rest of the album seem fine, but all the more reason to mount the stamps. I wouldn’t want them to become discolored, too.

I discovered the pre-cut mounts I ordered were a bit too big, so I ordered some mount strips and a little craft guillotine so I could cut the mounts to the correct size. My last supply order arrived today, so I started working on Papa’s Great Britain album. This is the first page.

The stamp in the upper left is known as a “Penny Black.” Penny Blacks were the first postage stamps. They’re not exceedingly rare, but I think just about every collector wants one. If you are collecting stamps, you want to have the first postage stamp in your collection. The Penny Black was issued for less than a year—May 1840 to February 1841. The reddish cancelation you can see on the stamp was apparently easy to remove, and people reused the stamps, so the British postal service decided to change the stamp’s color to red and use black cancelation, which would be harder to remove. This stamp was called a “Penny Red.” I don’t know if you can tell, but the first stamp with the letters J and I in the corner is actually on blue paper. The three stamps in the second row date from about 1841.

This next page includes stamps with a similar design, but they were issued later. The stamps at the top date from 1854-1857. The ones on the bottom date from 1858-1879. You probably can’t see this because I can only barely detect it with a magnifying glass, but the stamps on the bottom row have plate numbers in their frames on each side. The plate number is what it sounds like: the number given to the plate used to print the stamps. Plate numbers started appearing on Penny Reds in 1864.

Papa doesn’t have a complete collection of Penny Reds with each plate number, but it’s clear the album was designed for a serious collector who might want to have a copy of a Penny Red from each plate.

Here is another page of Penny Reds with plate numbers. I took a picture of this page in the middle of replacing the hinges with mounts. You can see the mounted stamps on the bottom and the hinged stamps on the top. While I admit I love the way the hinged stamps look in the album, the stamps will be better preserved in mounts. Papa placed the stamps into the album so carefully.

Partway through this project, I realized that someone had written the stamp’s Scott Number and plate number on the back of the stamps.

The Scott Number is the individual number given to each stamp by the Scott Catalogue, a comprehensive list of every stamp produced. Most collectors use Scott Numbers to refer to stamps. The Scott Catalogue also sets the basic value for a stamp, though the value is generally fluid and something that the buyer and seller agree on rather than anything fixed. The Scott Number for this stamp is 33, which was produced from 1864-1879. The plate number for this stamp is 103. The stamps vary in value depending on the plate number. This is not my grandfather’s handwriting. I am not sure who wrote the Scott and plate numbers on the backs of his stamps, but most of his Penny Reds have this information penciled on the back of the stamp. I suspect Papa may have bought or traded for another philatelist’s collection, and perhaps a previous owner penciled these numbers on the stamps. It was a fascinating find, though I suspect it would decrease the value of the stamps. The handwriting is extremely small. Even if I wanted to erase the numbers, I might damage the stamps in doing so.

Further on into the collection, I found this stamp with what might be a partially handwritten cancelation. In any case, there is some black handwriting on the stamp.

I think Papa thought this stamp was a Scott 34, but I think it’s probably a Scott 43 based on the color and the way the letters in the corners of the frame look. I don’t know the corresponding Stanley Gibbons Windsor Number for the stamp. I guess I’ll need to get a copy of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue so I can compare. To be fair to Papa, the previous collector who penciled numbers on the backs of the stamps wrote the number “34” on the back, and the two designs are pretty similar.

I found Papa’s first mint (not used) stamps dating from about 1887 (the stamp in the upper left).

While this stamp is beautiful and is in great condition, it’s not worth very much (less than $2.00). I also think Papa has the order of the stamps 197 and 197a reversed. The one labeled 197 should be vermilion and the 197a is orange vermilion. I think the one above the label 197 looks more orange.

These stamps are on the bottom half of that same page. You can see a few more mint stamps: in the top row, a blue half-penny stamp featuring Queen Victoria, then in the next row a blue-green half-penny featuring Edward VII. In the third row are a scarlet one-penny and a 1½-pence in two colors. Stamps that are unused or mint and centered nicely with gum on the back (if any) intact, are more valuable than used stamps and/or stamps that are poorly centered or missing the gum.

It’s interesting how quickly all of this came back to me as I examined Papa’s stamps. It definitely made me want to build on his collection. It’s strange that I still think of it as his rather than mine. I am starting to think of them as my stamps, but not completely. It made me feel close to him again, to spend some time caring for his stamps and remember him sitting next to me at the coffee table in his house, showing me how to place my stamps into my album.

I don’t think I ever saw these stamps while Papa was alive. I know I would have wanted to spend hours flipping through the albums. I’m not sure why Papa stopped collecting stamps. As far as I can tell, based on what I see in the collection and based on what my Uncle Wayne told me, he collected stamps during the 1950s and 1960s. When my mother and Wayne were little, Papa worked in the post office, and I think he must have picked up the hobby at that time. Papa was something of a serial collector. He would spend a great deal of time on a collecting hobby and then move on to a new one. Wayne looked and looked for this stamp collection, and I think he had just about given up hope of finding it. When he finally found it, he called me and told me he’d bring it to me in person, as he and his girlfriend were going to stay in his girlfriend’s sister’s cottage on Cape Cod. We spent the day together. I was really moved that Wayne went to all that trouble to make sure I could have these stamps. I will treasure this collection. This is us at Cape Cod when we connected a couple of weeks back. (Don’t worry, we kept our masks on indoors, and I have had two negative COVID tests since—I wouldn’t risk his health, nor he mine).

Wayne looks so much like Papa. He told me all about how he used to go to stamp shows with Papa and collected a bit himself when he was young. He said that if not for those stamp shows, he might have started playing drums, which he’s done for 50 years. He said the stamp shows had live music, and he remembered being enthralled by the bands.

As soon as we arrived at the cottage, Wayne pulled out Papa’s stamps to show me. He had an old apple box full of albums. I don’t know that I can bear to toss out the box, even if I put the albums on a bookshelf at some point because Papa wrote “Automobile Quarterly” in his clear print on the top. At one time, he must have kept his issues of the magazine in that box. It was a publication devoted to collectible cars—another of Papa’s hobbies. Wayne will keep that particular collection. It isn’t that I don’t have anything in Papa’s handwriting. Once he sent me the longest letter I’ll probably ever receive, written on tablets, because I asked him to write down some of his stories.

I thought about Papa and my grandmother, who passed in 2016, this week as the 27th would have been their 70th wedding anniversary. I feel really blessed to have had them in my life and to have some of their things—a pair of Granna’s Gingher scissors and some spools of thread, a sewing machine foot, some thimbles, a packet of needles dating from the 1950s, an old package of stale Freedent gum, a tape measure, a business card… and Papa’s stamps.

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian Black

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian BlackA Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN: 1616209119
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

“Raw, intimate, and true . . . A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys.”Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys & Sex

A poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from comedian Michael Ian Black to his teenage son before he leaves for college, and a radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching young men to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? 

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


This is an important book for our current moment. I found it helpful to understand the messages men receive about how to be “correctly” masculine, and I think we can lay many of our current societal problems at the feet of these dangerous messages. Readers looking for Black’s characteristic humor will find the subtitle accurate: the book is mostly serious, and I really appreciated the vulnerability and honesty of its seriousness. The book serves as a contemplative memoir, a poignant letter of love and advice, and a meditation on our world. I walked away from it feeling that Michael Ian Black is a good husband, father, and most of all, a good man.

I recommend this book most highly to men, but I learned a great deal from it, too. Most importantly, it gave me an understanding. I don’t believe all men are alike, and I don’t believe they are all horrible, but I freely admit I was reaching a point of despair over the ability of men—White men—to recognize their privilege and work on unlearning some of the most damaging messages they have received. If I had to pick a moment when this feeling started to take shape, it was when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed. I recognized that man. I am pretty sure I went to high school and college with a lot of guys like him. And I was pretty sure Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth. I was also pretty sure that Kavanaugh thought he was telling the truth, too. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but I think he felt entitled to do as he pleased, and I think he felt pressured to prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, and I think a lot of the boys in his friend group were doing the same things, which normalized and maybe even celebrated treating women as less than people, only useful as sexual objects. Because I remember what it was like to be a girl in the era in which Kavanaugh allegedly raped Blasey Ford. Black devotes a whole chapter to consent, and he explains the messages both girls and boys receive about consent and how they warp our ability to communicate sexual desire.

I admit things seem hopeless right now. We have a racist, misogynist person in the White House. He operates out of the most toxic and dangerous aspects of masculinity. Our civil rights champion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has completely upended our lives and taken the lives of a number most of us can’t fathom. The ending isn’t in sight. We are in the darkest part of the tunnel, or maybe the belly of the whale, and it is hard not to be resigned to despair. This book gave me a little bit of hope. It’s going to take some backbreaking work, but I’m comforted to know people like Michael Ian Black are doing their part for us.

five-stars

August Reading Update

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I haven’t had much time to blog lately, but I am finding more time to read (finally). I successfully defended my dissertation proposal in late July, and since then, I have been working on a piece of writing for my action step—I’m writing a dissertation in practice, which means I have to actually DO something and write about how it worked out. In any case, I thought I’d share a list of the books I have read since my last book review along with short reviews of each. I have been trying to read more library books and not buy a lot of books. I am lucky that my local library has Overdrive, so I can read a lot of library books using my Kindle app. It got me through this quarantine, I can tell you.

  1. Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, Ken Forkish: This is a great book about baking bread, and I learned a few things I didn’t know. I appreciate Forkish giving recipes in grams. I think it’s strange that Forkish’s recipes are almost always for 2 loaves, however. It seems like an odd choice. I also think he’s wrong about a few things (I know he’s more experienced than I am, but I haven’t found keeping instant yeast in the freezer kills it—it actually makes it last longer, in my experience). Still, I think it’s a great addition to my bread-baking library, and the one recipe I have tried so far turned out great. I initially checked this out from the library but then bought it. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★½.
  2. Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi: I listened to this on audio, and Onwuachi reads it. I thought this was an excellent memoir. Onwuachi has a really interesting story. I heard recently that he is now leaving Kith and Kin, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★★
  3. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: This book is an excellent introduction to several key historical figures and how they represent ideas about racism or antiracism in their times: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. I learned many things from this book. If I have one quibble, it’s that Kendi cites some secondary sources, and I think going back to the primary sources whenever he can would strengthen his arguments (not that I disagree with him, just that I think people who do will find his use of secondary sources a reason to poke holes in his arguments). Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  4. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid: I really enjoyed this book about old Hollywood. I know Reid was partly thinking of Elizabeth Taylor, but Evelyn Hugo seems owes a small debt to Marilyn Monroe, too. The author hints early on that there will be a twist at the end, and yep, it’s a pretty good one. I really need to thank Taylor Jenkins Reid for getting me out of my reading rut. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  5. Passable in Pink, Mike Sacks: This book is a spoof on John Hughes movies of the 1980s. You will recognize Pretty in PinkSixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club, and maybe a few more films in the plot. The joke wears thin after a bit. I think the beginning is kind of funny, but then it starts to drag. Definitely listen to the audiobook with its great cast if you decide to read it. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  6. The Leavers, Lisa Ko: OMG, this book is still in my head. I loved this book. It’s one of the best ones I read this year. It will have you thinking deeply about how the US treats undocumented immigrants and what happens to children adopted outside of their race as well. There are so many issues to think about. Well-meaning White liberals would do well to read this book. It’s incredible. You will think about the characters for a long time. Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  7. Dear Martin, Nic Stone: I think teens will really enjoy this book. It tells the story of a teenage boy who goes to prep school but has to contend with the racism of police officers. It will inevitably be compared to The Hate U Give and may be found wanting in that comparison (which probably isn’t fair), but it tells a different story and is worth a read. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  8. The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline: This book is set about 25-30 years in a dystopian future in which climate change has wreaked havoc on the world. People stop dreaming, and it makes them go insane and die. Somehow, they discover aboriginal people can still dream, and if their bone marrow is consumed, it can save the lives of non-Native people. The main character in this book is Métis, First Nations, and the book is set in Canada. It’s an interesting read, but I didn’t think it was as amazing as my teacher friends seemed to think. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  9. Heart Berries, Therese Marie Mailhot: Tommy Orange said this book was good, and parts of it are really poetic. I understand Mailhot is writing from the perspective of a person with bipolar disorder, but I had a hard time with her. She is married to the man she was dating in this memoir, and he seems like an asshole, so I guess to each her own, but he came off like a fuckboi in this book. This is a book I can appreciate on the one hand, but that I didn’t much like on the other. I can’t figure out how Roxane Gay gave this book 5 stars and only gave There There four. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  10. Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson: This a great little book about all the common kitchen implements and cooking tools we use. The fork is only one. Wilson talks about everything from plates to refrigerators. I learned a lot from this book, and the audiobook is charmingly narrated. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★½
  11. When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, Laban Carrick Hill: This crossed my radar the other day, and I have to admit I learned from it. I felt like the author could have been more thorough in covering what happened to DJ Kool Herc later on. I know it’s a kids’ book, but leaving it out felt like a cop-out (spoiler: he had problems with drug addiction and sort of receded into the background of hip hop). Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★☆
  12. Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman: I read this as part of some research I was doing. Feldman and I cited many of the same studies in our research. This is a great book, and I’d highly recommend all teachers read it. Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★★
  13. The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones: I picked this up because Tommy Orange blurbed it. It is an interesting book, and I admit I’m not a huge fan of horror, but this book was pretty good, and I was able to handle the horror parts. I am still kind of wondering what happened. I have a theory, but I am not sure I’m right. Anyway, there is something under the surface about being a good steward of the land and empathy for all creatures that I’m still trying to unpack. I liked the writing, and I would read more by this author. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆

Books I re-read:

  1. Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid (I read this book twice this year!)
  2. 1919, Eve L.Ewing
  3. Counting Descent, Clint Smith (I guess I have never reviewed this, but it’s amazing)
  4. Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly
  5. There There, Tommy Orange (I also read this one twice this year, too.)