The COVID pandemic has changed many of our habits. Has it had an effect on your reading habits?
I have not been in a library for nearly a year and I am having serious withdrawal pains (laughs). I miss browsing the shelves at LSC-CyFair Library and looking at the displays especially the new acquisitions bookshelf or a special events area like right now in March there would be a women's history display section. I miss talking to our librarians and attending Books without Borders in person. I also miss doing faculty book clubs in person. We're still doing these events through WebEx, but it's not quite the same. I do, however, watch many Webinars with writers and historians. The plethora of diverse online author presentations and readings are a big plus. Some of them are enjoyable and informative while others are less so especially if there are technical difficulties.
Overall, I am reading more, which is a good thing. Being immersed in a book might be the best way to escape the horrors and monotony of the pandemic.
What is your favorite genre? Which do you avoid?
I enjoy nearly all genres except for fantasy. My favorites are literary fiction, historical fiction (with strong literary qualities), mysteries, and some science fiction and horror. With nonfiction, history of course (especially on the U.S. and Asia), memoirs, travel books, and books on politics, journalism, the arts and sports. I used to teach a history of film class and also enjoy the aesthetics of film. Before I was a history professor, I was in journalism, primarily a sportswriter.
The last few years I have read quite a few memoirs, mostly by women. Some of my favorites have been Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, Morgan Jerkins' Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, Reyna Grande's The Distance Between Us and Carmen Machado's In the Dream House, which was recommended by one of my favorite librarians.
Grande's book is about her childhood, living in Mexico and then coming to the U.S. in the '80s with her family as undocumented immigrants. It's perhaps the best book I've read about the immigrant experience from the perspective of a child. I am thinking of having my students read and discuss it in my U.S. History Survey II class. Grande's perseverance and love of learning are inspirational.
What book is currently sitting on your nightstand?
Due to problems with my eyesight, I have switched to reading primarily on my Kindle. So my "nightstand" has hundreds of books. I am currently finishing up The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas by Monica Muñoz Martinez. She focuses on the horrific amount of lynchings and murders of Mexicans in the borderlands of south and west Texas from 1910-1920, much of it done by white law enforcement including Texas Rangers. It's a story that many Texans have never heard about, but need to know and understand the ramifications. Martinez also looks at how the stories about the violence, intimidation and murders have been passed down from generation to generation in Mexican American families. Most of them received no justice for their murdered relatives just like black families who had relatives lynched. Many whites saw (and still see) the Rangers from this time period as heroes. So a big focus of the book is how the past is remembered today. Similarly, in recent years we have finally been discussing how the Civil War has been distorted by the numerous Confederate statues and monuments promoting the Lost Cause. We should be having these same discussions about the racism and violence along the Texas border.
I have also started Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It has been perhaps the most talked about nonfiction book of the past year. Relying on anthropological studies from the twentieth century, Wilkerson shows how racism created a caste system in the U.S. She also examines the caste system in India and racism in Nazi Germany. The history department is discussing Caste this semester for its book club.
After Caste, next up on my Kindle is Alice Baumgartner's South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War. Much research has been done on runaway slaves to northern states and Canada, but not much on Mexico. I look forward to this book, which was published late last year.
I like reading history books on my Kindle because it is easy to highlight and take notes, which can then be downloaded into a single file. The Libby app that the Harris County Public Library provides is wonderful. During the Pandemic, I have read many Kindle books and listened to audio files through this app on my phone.
What’s the last great book you read? The last book you recommended to everyone you know?
I have two that I have read recently that I think can be considered great and have recommended to numerous people. Brit Bennett's novel The Vanishing Half has received much attention and deservedly so for its story about race and gender. It'll probably win this year's Pulitzer Prize.
I then saw Bennett do a webinar with Robert Johnson, Jr. about his debut novel The Prophets, set in nineteenth century Mississippi on a slave plantation. It took him 14 years to write this book as he did much research. The story is told from about ten different perspectives and focuses on a love relationship between two young male slaves. While many of the depictions of slavery are realistic, there are also magical qualities to the novel that take the story to another level.
Are there any classic novels you read recently for the first time?
Last year I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I'm not sure why I had never read this as a child. As a history professor I had read some of her short stories, essays and diary excerpts. I also recommend John Matteson's Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. It's an insightful biography of Louisa and Bronson Alcott, who was quite a character. I have used this book in my U.S. History I survey class, and students for the most part enjoyed it. As part of the Transcendentalist Concord crowd along with Emerson and Thoreau, the Alcotts produced much written work. As a result, it is easy to find primary sources that work in tandem with Matteson's biography when you’re discussing his book in class.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, what, where, how)
I don't get to do this as much now, but I always enjoyed reading at the beach, especially in the spring or early fall when it is not too hot. I like to hear the sound of the waves while reading an engrossing novel. I did it more as a child, growing up 15 miles from the shore.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
Last summer I read two of Luis Alberto Urea's novels -- Into the Beautiful North and The House of Broken Angels. Both made me laugh out loud with some silly, but endearing characters from California and Mexico.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned from a book recently?
Before reading Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I knew that the treatment of Amazon warehouse workers was bad. But after reading her book, I felt like these are modern-day sweatshops and the warehouse robots are treated better. For a number of reasons, it makes me reluctant to buy non-digital goods from Amazon.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I would think a great book does both. I mentioned Bennett's The Vanishing Half earlier, and her novel connected to me emotionally and intellectually. She makes you think about the issue of colorism and how racism can be subtle. She has also created characters that are engaging and draw you in emotionally. There are several scenes and plot twists that made me say, "Wow."
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
A few years ago, with my daughter, we listened to Stephen King's mystery/horror Bill Hodges trilogy. We were both fascinated by Hodges, a detective with many faults, but a good heart. The villain in these books, Mr. Mercedes aka Brady Hartsfield, is as evil, sick and memorable as any that King has ever created. We still talk about these stories and the main characters. King has been around so long that I started reading him as middle schooler like my daughter has done.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you the most?
As I child, I remember Green Eggs and Ham was the first book I read on my own. By first grade I was reading history books. I remember there was a Meet the President’s series and a Discover America series and I read most of them. I think the next year my parents bought a World Book Encyclopedia set and I loved to look at various entries especially the history ones, spending hours flipping from one volume to the next. I guess it was my version of the Internet and Google in the 1970s.
Even though our New Jersey township did not initially have a library branch, my mother frequently took me and sometimes my friends 10 miles north up Route 9 to the main Monmouth County branch in Freehold. In the summer, our small neighborhood would have a bookmobile stop by once a week. There was nothing like having a thousand books on wheels a short walk away. I would usually get a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery if there were any available. I preferred Nancy Drew as the stories were more interesting. I liked the Phyllis A. Whitney mysteries, too, as she wrote mostly about teenage girls. Most of my friends in the neighborhood were avid readers, too. After playing some sport, we would then sit around and read whatever books we had from the library or bookmobile. Sometimes we would pass books around especially the Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective series. Each would have several short mystery stories. The reader had to figure out how Encyclopedia solved the mystery. The answer was in the back of the book. But it would be fun to see which one of us could figure it out and who couldn't.
By middle school I was reading classics by Mark Twain, Henry Fielding, Rudyard Kipling and John Steinbeck and horror by Stephen King. My favorite two books as a child were Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman and The Grapes of Wrath. Beckman’s novel was translated from Dutch and is about a teenage boy that travels back in time to the Middle Ages to participate in the Children’s Crusade, which most historians today discount. Her novel probably distorted the Middle Ages, but it was a fascinating adventure story for me as an 11-year old. Then several years later my mother found her old copy of John Steinbeck’s great novel, and told me I should read this. I loved it and have read it several more times since.
What’s the last book you read that made you cry?
There are two. First, Machado's In the Dream House. She lives with a partner that is horribly abusive. I had to put the book down multiple times. Then Barbara Demick's Eat the Buddha, for several reasons, made me sad. She discusses horrible treatment by the Chinese toward Tibetans, going back to the 1950s and all the way to the present. In the 1990s when I lived in China I witnessed some disrespectful, culturally insensitive and ignorant actions by the Chinese toward Tibetans in Gansu province. Her book, set primarily in Ngaba, Sichuan Province, reminded me of these past incidents. It's not surprising, but still depressing to know this still occurs. Demick also describes in vivid detail about the Buddhist monks protesting the Chinese government through self-immolation. I had to stop reading several times when she discussed these protests. It was heartbreaking.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
This is a tough question to answer. The possibilities are endless. May I hold several dinner parties? For the first party (laughs), I'll pick Louisa May Alcott, not only for her writing, but because I admire her as a person. She did much to help her family financially and raised one of her nieces until she died. Sadly, she was only 55. She also took bold stands for women's rights and against slavery.
Next, I'll pick historian Edmund Morgan, who died several years ago. He focused on the colonial period and American Revolution. Just before I went to grad school, I read Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom and this book made me realize my choice to become a historian was the right one. I still reference his book on colonial slavery in my classes. To join them, I'll invite Tony Horwitz, who died less than two years ago of a heart attack. He was still actively working and most certainly would have written more books. Horwitz combined his great skills as a journalist with a drive to understand the past, producing some wonderful travel books and history books. He was one of the best at interviewing someone and getting the interviewee to reveal his or her true self. Morgan, Horwitz and I would most likely be peppering Alcott with questions about the Civil War.
I’ll get back with you on the second party’s guests.