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Archive for June, 2021

Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, was a gift from my friend Joan, who was one of my sponsors during my discernment in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. We certainly had as many conversations about fiction as we did about faith (although I think we’d both say those topics often intersect) and she has pointed me towards some wonderful reads over the last year. Migrations is both a fascinating story that keeps readers engaged with piecing together the main character’s story and an examination of the fragility of life for all earth’s inhabitants.

When the book opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland, pleased to have banded three arctic terns in terrible weather, and anxious to find a ship captain she can convince to follow the birds on their epic migration. Fisheries are terribly depleted, so much so that her pitch is that the terns will lead them to a catch. She thinks she’s found a likely ship to take her on when she rescues Ennis, captain of the Saghani. Until he says she didn’t rescue him. An intriguing start to the story, and I read on, assuming that Franny is a scientist and that the story would revolve around some kind of plan to save the birds. It’s doesn’t.

Turns out much of the book is about how nothing is as seems, particularly when it comes to Franny. Migrations is set in a time in the not very distant future when human selfishness has caused extinction of nearly all wildlife, a book that spotlights humans as a “plague on the world” as Franny’s husband Niall says. But McConaghy doesn’t tell the story of environmental degradation — she plunks us down in the midst of it to see how people are living with it.

And Migrations is about the big ideas that should have prevented mass selfishness and mass extinction: love, faithfulness, truth, hope, family. It’s a page turner, as Niall helps Franny delve into the mystery of her family, as we learn of a crime, as we see how far Franny and Ennis will go to finish her quest, and what she’s really set out to do. And it’s a story of someone who seems flighty and unreliable — fickle, as her mother-in-law implies — but is really traumatized. Like some of the creatures she loves, Franny is among the last of her family, and for much of the book, people around her mistake her restlessness with what seems to me an almost primal need to find a way to escape what’s harmed her, and somehow survive it.

Migrations would be a good vacation read — short, intriguing, and offering plenty to discuss with others. And I don’t know for sure what the connection is, but it sounds like the setting of McConaghy’s next novel, Once There Were Wolves is set in a place where Franny and Niall spend time in Migrations? Or a place very like it — a research and conservation station in the Scottish Highlands. I hope it will be as full of details about creatures and places as Migrations is. Part of what brought the book alive are things like a vivid description of a small ship steering up and over waves in a rough sea.

Because I don’t want to give away any more about the plot, I will leave you instead with a bit of McConaghy’s lovely writing:

“Most mornings I wake to a kiss as he leaves for work. This morning it was so early there was barely any dawn light peeking through the shutters and in the dark his lips could have been a dream.”

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I’ve had The Murrow Boys for years; I read (and blogged about) Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London in 2010(!) and gave that book to others as a gift that year. My dad liked it so much he read Olson’s other books and he sent me The Murrow Boys at one point when he was done with it. I had it on a shelf, and then recently when I read a Maisie Dobbs book that featured a character who wanted to become one of Murrow’s “Boys” I remembered it and decided to pick it back up. Both Olson and her husband and co-author Stanley Cloud were journalists themselves.

I enjoyed this detailed history of Murrow and his “band of brothers.” It provides their stories and the story of early news reporting. I didn’t really realize that prior to Murrow’s work, radio news was just someone reading bulletins. Murrow pioneered the idea of reporters providing context either through the details and observations his team became known for that made the Blitz come to life over the radio in millions of American homes, or through analysis.

As interesting as the stories of these reporters and their adventures are, the book opens with a scene at Eric Sevareid’s memorial service in 1992, where one of the other Murrow Boys, Larry LeSueur, was more or less ignored and the celebrity journalists of the day pontificated without really honoring Sevareid’s contributions. The book ends on that same note. The trajectory from the rise of intelligent, carefully reported and deeply considered news presented by people who had a good deal of knowledge and understanding of the topics they covered to the media landscape of the mid-1990s when The Murrow Boys was written is sad.

Early on, Murrow clashed with the people at CBS who wanted “objectivity” over analysis. Olson and Cloud note that there is a difference between what Murrow noted CBS’s Ed Klauber brought to newsroom ethics — “standards of integrity, responsibility, and restraint” — and thinly veiled control by management and sponsors over what reporters can say and how far they can go in calling out propaganda and untruth. Murrow and his Boys struggled against both wartime censorship and the meddling of CBS’s ownership and commercial sponsors. Later in the television era, they struggled against the network’s pursuit of profit as well.

And really nothing has changed today. I was just reading yesterday about Walter E. Hussman, a newspaper publisher who has given millions to University of North Carolina, derailing UNC’s tenure process for Nikole Hannah-Jones. He apparently believes that he has more of a right to define “impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking” than someone whose Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project threatens the white dominant narrative of America’s origin story. In her excellent piece in the Charlotte Observer, Paige Masten, a recent UNC graduate, points out, “. . . this debate isn’t a question of whether we should continue to do our due diligence and thoroughly investigate both sides. It’s about whether we should give both sides equal weight when the facts clearly favor one side over the other.”

Murrow and the Boys made that argument when they were told to stop reporting on the rise of the Nazis, and later, when they were pressured not to question Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunting. They were told that they had to be “objective” in reporting about these things — but what that meant, in fact, was that they were expected to refrain from saying that they were wrong. Did that serve the public good? No. And they struggled against it, working to get their analysis — which was always based in a clear understanding of the facts — across anyway.

Today I read a column, “Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts,”* and this stood out to me: “Neutrality provides a way to stay silent and observe injustices instead of commenting or acting and making that silence seem to be a moral triumph instead of a moral failing.” What the owners of CBS wanted in Murrow’s time and what Hussman wants now, is to make staying silent on injustice in the name of “neutrality” into a noble act. When the truths the media expose, both in reporting and commentary or analysis, challenges what the powerful or dominant say is the truth, it inevitably leads those who identify with the powerful and dominant to cry “bias.” What they are really saying is that they want reporters to be more like the early pre-Murrow news broadcasters on radio who just read a list of what happened.

Or the TV news producers that the last of the Murrow boys watched turn news broadcasts into entertainment. As Olson and Cloud note, on commercial stations (rather than public television and radio) “broadcast news seemed to have little interest in helping viewers and listeners make sense of bits and pieces of information it put on the air, providing illumination and context.” And our media landscape today, twenty-five years after The Murrow Boys was published, is rife with misinformation and edutainment, punditry that is simply about repeating the ideological stance of powerful sponsors and owners, and a steady barrage of fear mongering.

At least it’s nothing new. My dad always says that reading history, he is somewhat comforted that we’ve been through all the things we’re experiencing before, and that while things do get bad, they sometimes also get better. I hope that’s the case. The Murrow Boys is a good read, and important one, that doesn’t spare Murrow or his Boys from critique, but also shines a clear light on the dangers of putting profit and power ahead of truth.

  • Bussmann, J., Altamirano, I., Hansen, S., Johnson, N., & Keer, G. (2020). Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, (95). https://doi.org/10.29173/istl2570

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You may get deja vu reading this post, because I just recently reviewed another book about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I was telling a friend about reading that book, because she lives in Kentucky and I wanted to know her thoughts about it. She suggested I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson. They both tell the stories of women delivering books in the mountains of Kentucky during the Depression. Apparently there has been some controversy, with Robinson feeling that Moyes may have taken material from her book. Honestly, it seems to me Facebook’s fault as much as anything — after Smithsonian ran an article about the horse riding librarians, stories have circulated regularly on social media, which keeps obscure but quirky stories circulating for a long time.

Having read both, I have to say that I didn’t think they were that similar, and that the things they both talked about — a woman being attacked by a drunken man, a black packhorse librarian, weddings, babies, certain books and magazines being delivered, religious intolerance, prejudice — seem common enough ideas that someone with an interest in the topic, the region, and the time period would have come across those ideas in their research. Anyone writing about women who were pioneering in some way would consider the ways they were kept in their place, including through assault. Anyone writing about the early 1930s (in Kentucky and many other places) would need to include racism, religious intolerance, bootlegging, and patriarchy.

Robinson’s book is about a “blue” woman, Cussy Mary, named after the town in France where her great-grandfather came from. Her skin is blue because of a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia — her blood lacks an enzyme that is needed for oxygenation, so her skin has a blueish tint. I didn’t know until my friend told me about them that there was a community of so-called Blues in Kentucky. The entire book revolves around Cussy and her experience as a young woman who people fear, harass, and abuse because of her skin. Her love of books, dedication to her patrons and her sweet nature in spite of all the hardship, pain and grief in her life make her a lovely character. The brutality of the mining company, meanness of the prejudiced people who believe she is a heathen or worse, and extreme poverty of the Troublesome Creek area are vivid parts of the book. I appreciated that when the black librarian in town, Queenie, moves to Philadelphia and writes to Cussy about it, it’s not portrayed as a paradise.

There are some strange scenes that to me didn’t fit: for one, the town doctor who is later portrayed as kindly and well intentioned allows some horrifying mistreatment of Cussy at the hands of nuns in a hospital where he takes her to have some tests to determine why her skin is blue, but he later has an altercation with a doctor who wants to keep her overnight. And a sheriff also seems to act rather erratically and goes from being someone Cussy trusts to a maniac who beats someone up (ok, that’s pretty believable, actually). I suppose it keeps the characters from being one dimensional, but in both of these cases the out-of-character behavior gave me pause. I suppose the point was supposed to be that when it comes to skin color prejudice, even otherwise “nice” people act horribly.

I don’t see how anyone who reads the two books could think Moyes copied anything significant.The books have entirely different plots. Some details overlap, but again I think that is a matter of writing about something about which there are limited sources of information. Moyes writes about the librarians, two in particular, and focuses on their romantic lives, and the main source of conflict in the book is the idea that women living in a patriarchal, judgemental, and conservative society would want to have control over and enjoy sex. The characters who don’t want to marry in the two books have different reasons for that, and the babies in each book come from very different circumstances and storylines. Moyes also includes a murder trial that causes a fair bit of suspense and focuses on the extreme differences in circumstance between the rich and poor in her story. And as noted already, her main character observes things with an outsider’s view of Kentucky. Robinson focuses on Cussy, her reasons for serving as a librarian, her struggle with being physically marked as an outsider even though her “kin” go back generations in the area, and her developing sense of herself as more than a Blue person. Even though Cussy’s father is a miner and is organizing, there is almost no mention of the mine ownership, whereas Moyes makes the mine owner a major character who interferes with the women’s lives. Robinson describes the poverty of Cussy’s patrons very graphically, but we don’t hear much about the wealthy residents of Troublesome Creek and their cruel indifference to poverty is mostly implied, as the focus is on their colorism.

Both are good reads. As for why Jojo Moyes’s book is being made into a film? Well, the sex, I would think. Plus, she’s had a book adapted for film before. But Robinson is a bestselling author who has won awards, both of which are big accomplishments for a writer, so it seems to me both books did well.

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First a quick shout out for the most recent Maisie Dobbs mystery, The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear. I usually don’t review a series book (especially not book 16), and I just wrote about Winspear’s memoir, but I wanted to mention that this series continues to be very entertaining and intriguing.

As was The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was thinking today that it’s a perfect example of fiction that deals with tragic events but manages to leave the reader hopeful. Actually, it left me deeply curious. I wished mightily that the main character, Esme Nicoll, was one of the real people Williams wove into her story. Unfortunately she’s entirely fictional but it’s a testament to debut novelist (and already accomplished scholar and writer) Williams that I believed she could be real, right up until I read the author’s note.

Williams was inspired by real stories about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and several of the characters Esme grows up knowing, and later working with, are actual people. I read a book about the making of the dictionary many years ago (by Simon Winchester, and so had Williams, and she noticed the lack of women. But she knew women were involved, notably editor James Murray’s daughters, and some of the volunteer contributors who sent in words or definitions. The OUP blog notes that Murray also hired a woman academic, which was uncommon at the time.

Esme is the daughter of one of Murray’s assistants, and as a small child she sits under the sorting table where the slips with words on them are organized. She develops a habit of taking slips from the floor. As she grows up she begins gathering words of her own, because she realizes that many of the words her friend, the Murray’s maid Lizzie, uses are never going to be in the dictionary because there aren’t published quotes to support them. She tells Lizzie that women sometimes use words differently, and those meanings are not reflected in the dictionary. Esme gathers those, too, writing up and stashing slips in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed.

Esme is a wonderful character, whose human imperfections make her very believable. Williams weaves in the story of Edith Thompson, real life OED contributor, sub-editor, and proofreader, by making her Esme’s aunt, a fascinating woman who has a big influence on Esme’s life. And she works in some astute observations about gender roles and class differences, as well as two key historical events that impact Esme and the other characters, and the making of the dictionary: the women’s suffrage movement and WWI. Williams includes lovely details about the workings of the Oxford University Press where the dictionary was printed, as well as other locations around Oxford, and the famous Scriptorium — a glorified shed — in the Murray’s garden where much of the work proceeded until Murray’s death.

But mainly she makes it entirely believable that a woman working on the dictionary might start a side project to recognize all the left out words. Gareth, a compositor at the press, finds Esme picking up slips of some of her collected words off the floor of the Scriptorium after a male assistant has dismissed her work as unimportant. Gareth asks her why words that are in common use aren’t in the dictionary. She explains where she gets her words. From “The poor. People who work at the Covered Market. Women. Which is why they’re not written down and why they’ve been excluded. Though sometimes they have been written down, but they’re still left out because they are not used in polite society. . . . They’re important.”

A delightful read. Entertaining, interesting, and full of heart and truth.

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