June 2021 Wrap-Up: From The Minds of Billy Milligan to The Colour

The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981] by Daniel Keyes ★★★★1/2

This was my best read of June. The Minds of Billy Milligan is a true story of Billy Milligan, a man who once had twenty-four personalities living inside him. The author of Flowers for Algernon takes the reader on an entrancing journey into a fractured mind.

Who Was Rosa Parks? [2010] by Yona Zeldis McDonough, Nancy Harrison & Stephen Marchesi – ★★★★1/2

…a bus seat may seem like a little thing. But it wasn’t. It represented something big[McDonough, 2010: 47].

This series of books illustrates the lives of notable people for children. Rosa Parks was an American activist known for her involvement in the civil rights movement, in particular, in the Montgomery bus boycott. She is famous for saying “no” to the demand to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in 1955. Her quiet courage which led to big changes won the world’s admiration. This children’s book with illustrations starts by talking about Rosa as a small child living in segregated Alabama and then moves on to talk about Rosa changing various schools and finally becoming a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as well as “one of few women in the civil rights movement” [2010: 36] at that time. I liked the fact that the book talked about Claudette Colvin too, a fifteen year old girl, who refused to give her seat to one white passenger months before Parks’s refusal, but she never made any headlines. The book explains such concepts as Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow Laws to older children, and emphasises the extent of the control exercised over black people’s lives at that time, as well as the inherent injustice implicit in the rules governing bus conduct and seating arrangements in the 1950s Alabama.

Unfortunately, however, the book is also presented a bit chaotically, opening with the introductory section on who Rosa Parks was and not telling about her achievements at all. There are also some strange assumptions how Parks must have felt at certain moments, and the book talks about the Brown vs Board of Education decision of 1954 when Parks was only about 12 and living in the year 1925. Overall, though, Who Was Rosa Parks is a good book. It conveys clearly the message that a big change always begins with one small step and no one is too small or insignificant to make a difference. For those curious to explore the case further, there is a book Rosa Parks: My Story that was first published in 1948, and there is also the Rosa Parks interview.

Who Was Harriet Tubman? [2002] by Yona Zeldis McDonough & Nancy Harrison – ★★★★1/2

Who Was Harriet Tubman? talks about the life and achievements of one slave woman, born 1822, in the US who helped many black people in slavery become free. In very simple language, it explains that Harriet Tubman (“The Moses of Her People”) was a fiercely independent young woman who always stood up for her people. She had dreams of freedom and and one day managed to escape her master, travelling on the Underground Railroad. She returned many times to the South, though, guiding some seventy other slaves to their freedom to the North, including devising their roots of escape, communicating with abolitionists and Quakers, and both physically and symbolically paving their road to freedom. She worked as a nurse, as a spy and also as the Commander of Intelligence Operations for the Union’s Army Department of the South. She was a passionate activist for equality, too, and later also campaigned for women’s rights. The story is mixed with some information on Tubman’s time period, for example, explaining abolitionists and Quakers. Though it is a great idea to introduce children to notable and courageous people from history who made a positive difference to other people’s lives in a simple story format, I also thought that some aspects of the story were over-simplified, while others will be unsuitable for young children. The film Harriet, based on the life of Harriet Tubman, was released in 2019.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song [2017] by Gary Golio & Charlotte Riley-Webb★★★★1/2

Those who heard her said she sounded like nobody else.

This very short picture book tells of Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959), an American jazz singer, her rise to fame and the origin of her song Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol and first recorded in 1939. Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) had traumatic childhood, but her passion for music, singing and jazz always drove her forward and inspired her to achievements. Holiday started singing in Harlem music clubs when she was fifteen and gained her fame while performing at the famous Café Society in New York, which allowed both white and black people to sit at front tables. Colourful illustrations by Charlotte Riley-Webb help make Billie Holiday’s story even more vivid and powerful than it already is for many. The book conveys the prejudice and racism the singer faced in her career and the ways she tried to fight back. Strange Fruit remains one of the most important and powerful song-statements against slavery, violence and oppression.

The Lifted Veil: The Book of Fantastic Literature by Women, 1800-World War II (ed. Susan A. Williams) [1992] – ★★★★

This book is a wonderful collection of short stories of the fantastic, supernatural and the unexplained written by women. There are stories in this book by such authors as Edith Wharton (author of The House of Mirth), Charlotte Bronte (author of Jane Eyre), Virginia Woolf (author of Mrs Dalloway), George Eliot (author of Middlemarch), Elizabeth Gaskell (author of North and South) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of The Yellow Wallpaper), among others. For example, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) writes in her short story The Mortal Immortal [1833] about a young man who drinks an elixir of immortality and that grants him eternal youth. Now aged three hundred and twenty-three, he realises the true cost of his once hasty decision to drink something to forget his beloved. Willa Cather (Death Comes for the Archbishop) in her eerie story Consequences [1915] talks about two acquaintances, Henry Eastman and Kier Cavenaugh, who meet on a rainy day and one tells the other of “a ghostly man” stalking him. This tale of missed signs of distress culminates in a horrific death. Amelia B. EdwardsThe Phantom Coach [1864] starts with a man lost in snowy wilderness, looking for any shelter so he can stay alive and see his wife again. One mysterious man in one mysterious house directs him to the path of a mail coach that may help him to find a way home. Little the man suspects he may catch “the wrong” mail coach.

Still Me [1998] by Christopher Reeve – ★★★★

In the 1980-90s, Christopher Reeve was the definition of success: ridiculously good-looking, talented and Juilliard-trained, he led a very active life, was the epitome of health and fitness, and was a loving husband and a devoted father to his three beautiful children. He was Superman in the film Superman [1978], was in The Bostonians [1984], TV film Anna Karenina [1985], The Remains of the Day [1993], and was previously offered and declined lead roles in such films as Body Heat [1981], Romancing the Stone [1984] and The Bounty [1984]. Then, in 1995, Christopher Reeve participated in an equestrian competition in which his horse made an unexpected refusal. This resulted in him falling head first forwards and suffering a broken neck. Reeve miraculously survived his fall, but was paralysed from the neck down.

Written just three years after his accident, Still Me is the actor’s autobiographical book where he looks back on his life, paying tribute to all the people who helped him to become successful, as well as details his painful road to recovery. It is a frank, moving account of a man who tries to piece his life together after realising his predicament. Reeve details his early life, his acting aspirations and training, as well as the events that led up to the tragedy. He also covers his attempts to overcome both psychological and physical hurdles following his life-changing injury: depression, fear of running out of oxygen (as he could not breathe on his own), and his fear of being put in a wheelchair. What is also admirable is how much of this book is about other people as well, for example, about his loving wife Dana, whose loyalty to her husband becomes the story’s centre point, about incredible neurosurgeon Dr Jane, who performed the very risky operation, and about the first paramedics to the scene of the accident. Reeve also details all the support that he received from both people he knew and complete strangers, including from his Juilliard-classmate Robin Williams and Katharine Hepburn. Later, Reeve also became a passionate activist for the disable people’s rights and campaigned much to promote research into neurological conditions. Overall, Still Me may be an uneven account, but it is still an inspirational read and, certainly, a life account worth knowing (see the short documentary The Heart of a Hero about the life of Christopher Reeve here). As one commentator put it: “Christopher Reeve wasn’t Superman, Superman was Christopher Reeve.

The Baron in the Trees [1957] by Italo Calvino ★★★1/2

This whimsical tale about a boy who decides to live permanently on trees charms, but Calvino’s book also lacks substance and does not go beyond its main idea or its generic fairy-tale structure.

Midaq Alley [1966] by Naguib Mahfouz – ★★★1/2

Naguib Mahfouz is the 1988 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature and probably best known for his Cairo Trilogy books: Palace Walk [1956], Palace of Desire [1957] & Sugar Street [1957]. Midaq Alley is his shorter novel in which he also describes the life in Cairo in bygone times, but, this time, in the 1940s. Mahfouz possessed a great descriptive force in writing, and his prose transports and introduces the reader to the Cairo of old times, virtually street by street and stall by stall. The place’s uniqueness excites. The babbling noise of the city’s labyrinthic streets, the aroma of its coffee-shops and the contradictory nature of the inhabitants’ lives all pull and fascinate. The city-dwellers notice the changes to their traditional values occurring in front of their eyes, but each of them responds to these changes in their own way.

The centre of this novel’s plot is Midaq Alley and its inhabitants, from poverty-stricken street sellers to relatively powerful landlords. There are quite a number of different characters introduced, for example, Uncle Kamil, a sweets-seller, whose weight everyone tells him will eventually kill him, but to which he nonchalantly replies: “But how will death harm [me] when [my] life is merely a prolonged sleep”? [Mahfouz/Le Gassick, 1966/1992: 2]; Mr Hussainy, an apparently good-natured man, but who may have a dark side; Abbas, a peaceful barber in search of a wife who also made friends with the wrong people; Hamida, a beautiful girl who strives for financial security and, thus, wants to marry rich, and Zaita, the “cripple-maker” who represents all the sins of the city. Vices of all kinds drive the novel’s characters to do all sorts of actions in their desire to get prosperous or find happiness. No doubt that Naguib Mahfouz is a literary master and there is much to commend this novel for, but I also think I might have picked up the wrong translation, and, rather that discovering some subtle insight into the society or human nature, instead I merely found exaggerated characters in one melodramatic narrative that more perplexes and frustrates than genuinely interests and intrigues.

The Bilingual Brain [2017] by Albert Costa ★★★1/2

From language acquisition to evidence gathered from brain-imaging techniques, Professor Costa explores every avenue to answer the million-dollar question of what makes bilinguals so special. Is it possible “to solve” the numerous paradoxes concerning bilinguals? Unfortunately, the questions the book raises are much more fascinating and intriguing than any “weak” attempts at answering them or sporadic and unsatisfying conclusions given.

The Colour [2003] by Rose Tremain – ★★★

Gold can make everybody do things they’d never normally do” [Tremain, 2003: 84]. In this historical fiction taking place in the nineteenth century, a husband, Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and Joseph’s mother Lilian arrive from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. They build a house (The Cob House) and try to accustom themselves to a new life, hoping for a brighter future. They develop friendship with another couple from England, the Orchards, and face challenges familiar to most immigrants. Then, Joseph finds traces of gold in one creek and, taken by his “gold fever”, hides his discovery from both his wife and his mother. The story is interesting (it’s the West Coast Gold Rush, after all, and the location is Hokitika, New Zealand!) and the author offers much insight into the psychology of her characters, as well as into their complex inter-relationships. However, it also becomes difficult to find something special in this narrative that also “drags its feet” for chapters at a time and the “matter-of-fact”, unimaginative writing does not help.

This month I also talked about the art of Jacek Yerka (1952 – ).


22 thoughts on “June 2021 Wrap-Up: From The Minds of Billy Milligan to The Colour

  1. I do like to be introduced to new titles, even ones I may never get round to reading, and to see a range of authors and genres, as here. I watched a fascinating TV documentary about Billie Holiday (which included a live performance of her singing ‘Strange Fruit’), detailing a life which was both unusual and also typical of women then—talented but also manipulated for financial gain, abused but also abusive, indulging bisexual affairs but also producing musical performances where you held your breath so as to pick up every nuance, every implied emotion.

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    1. I am glad you enjoy my monthly wrap-ups. I do want to watch a Billie Holiday documentary too. There was a recent film about her life, but I think I’d prefer a documentary.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad we agree on The Colour. I think it is rather forgettable. And, I am not sure if I want to try another Tremain, perhaps one day and perhaps her Sacred Country because I am curious about its comparison with Woolf’s Orlando or maybe The Gustav Sonata because it apparently has a structure of a piano sonata.

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  2. The Bilingual Brain sounds interesting, at least the topic. To be honest, I think most books about neuroscience are relatively vague without real answers. Despite of all the research, it’s amazing how many things we still don’t understand about the brain!

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  3. Oooh ‘The Lifted Veil’ sounds wonderful – I think I’ll try to grab a copy of that. 🙂 A similar anthology that I’d recommend is ‘Ghost’ edited by Louise Welsh which is an enormous book of ghost stories from basically the ancient world through to the present. But I love that this one is focused on a shorter period of time and on women writers specifically! Will have to check out it. Thanks for this post! x

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    1. I’ve just read a little about Ghost by Welsh and it looks and sounds great, many thanks! This will definitely be something to pick up near the Halloween season! And, I hope you enjoy The Lifted Veil. I think the book should be better known and it certainly also introduces some lesser known works by female authors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, Ghost would be totally perfect for Halloween! It’s actually something that I crack out every year around that time. And I’ll definitely check out The Lifted Veil – thank you for the recommendation 🙂

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