What I'm Reading: African American Faces of the Civil War

This is a twofer--a fascinating book full of period photographs, in which the images are accompanied by capsule biographies. The author has compiled cartes de visite, tintypes and ambrotypes, all of them images of black Civil War soldiers. They include famous names like Martin Delany and Lewis Douglass, son of Frederick Douglass, as well as people otherwise unknown. And they served in the best-known of all black regiments--the 54th Massachusetts, featured in the movie Glory--as well as the obscure ones, like the 108th Infantry USCT. You can learn more about the book, and you can also get a taste of the images.

Now, if someone would just do an album of African-American women in the Civil War...Don't suggest that it should be me...

Hidden Figures: Mary Edwards Walker

As I was researching something else entirely--black women who served as soldiers and spies in the Civil War--I stumbled upon the story of Mary Edwards Walker, a woman born a century before her time. She was an Abolitionist before the Civil War and a suffragist after. She earned a medical degree before the war broke out, and when hostilities began, offered her services to the U. S. Army as a surgeon. After the Civil War, she was the only woman awarded the Medal of Honor.

Her interest in reform included the reform of women's dress, and she walked the talk as few 19th-century women did. The National Library of Medicine holds this image of Dr. Walker in bloomer dress, and a few years later, dapper in a man's suit.

What I'm Reading: Catherynne M. Valente, Fairyland Series

By now, readers should be well aware of my fondness for books written for children. I just finished The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I was enchanted by it. It's one of the oldest tales in the world--a quest--but it's written from the absolutely believable perspective of a 12-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska. The voice and the use of fantasy elements makes the story fresh. And the illustrations are delightful, too. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books in the series.

Images of the Past: Hugh Mangum's Photographs

19th-century photography subjects were rarely caught smiling. Whether is was the length of the exposure needed, or embarrassment about the condition of their teeth, we're not sure. The photographs of Hugh Mangum, an itinerant North Carolina photographer active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are not typical in that many of his subjects are smiling. He was also unusual in photographing black people as well as whites, and he had an eye for an attractive face. Duke University holds his images, so I'll have to send you there to see them, but take a look. They are meeting your eyes, and their faces are full of good cheer.


What I'm Reading: A. S. Byatt, Possession

Less cranky, but inclined to re-read books that I've enjoyed in the past, in the hope that I'll like them just as well this time. A. S. Byatt's Possession works equally well as a mystery, a romance, and a literary tour-de-force. I'm impressed by anyone who can write reams of convincing poetry in the 19th-century style, a talent so far removed from my own that I can feel admiration instead of irritability.

Music to Write to: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (reviewed years ago by Roger Ebert) is a wonderful documentary about the men who were the "hidden figures" of Motown--the studio musicians who created some of the best-known riffs and melodies of 20th-century popular music. I like Joan Osborne a lot as a  performer, but her role as producer does her proud. The musicians thought of her as one of their own, and the moment when she sits with them, all of them pleased and smiling, is a lovely one.


The Argument Settler, Then and Now

I stumbled into my study late one night without my glasses on, and reached for what I thought was my cell phone. It was not. It was this:

Argument Settler.JPG

Published in 1896, it was the right size to fit in a man's vest pocket, and it was full of useful information for the day, such as the origin and names of fabrics (page 30); the number of trees on an acre (page 71); the distance traveled by a horse in plowing an acre of land (page 128); and the first lightning rods (page 236). It's not hard to imagine an know-it-all reaching for this volume in a bar in 1900 to smugly say, "I'll find the answer for you!"

But it is exactly the same size, and the same heft in the hand, as my 21st century version, the iPhone SE.



What I'm Reading

A lot of books that are making me cranky, either because they're boring me or they're frustrating me with their relative publishing success. When I'm in this mood I like to read books by long-dead authors. Anthony Trollope is my favorite. If you don't have the patience for his written oeuvre, the BBC's Palliser series makes an excellent substitute.

W. E. B. DuBois in Love

WEB DuBois_Battey LOC.jpg

William Burghardt DuBois is rightfully remembered for his scholarly achievement and his social activism, and his most familiar image is one of gravitas, like this formal portrait taken by photographer Cornelius Battey in 1919. But he was not always an elder statesman or a cultural icon.

In 1885, as a 17-year-old student at Fisk University, he fell "hopelessly in love," as he later recalled. Lena Calhoun was sixteen and not only beautiful; she was the daughter of the wealthiest black man in Reconstruction Atlanta, Moses Calhoun. She would become great-aunt to Lena Horne, and DuBois, who had occasion to observe them both, later wrote that "as fair as Lena Horne is, Lena Calhoun was far more beautiful."

He loved in vain. In 1888, Lena Calhoun married Frank G. Smith, another Fisk classmate, and  Willie, as he was known at the time, had to nurse a broken heart.

The quotes from DuBois and the story (as well as photographs of Lena Calhoun) can be found in Gail Lumet Buckley's family history and memoir, The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights.


What I'm Reading: Plain Kate, Erin Bow

The Tolkien tradition has cast such a long shadow over the literature of fantasy that it's refreshing to read a fantasy in a setting that is rooted instead in Eastern Europe. I found Erin Bow's book Plain Kate appealing from the outset for its a dark and brooding Slavic cast. But it's equally compelling as a story, with an utterly believable magical quest and a talking cat, rendered completely without cloying sentiment.

Music to Write To: The Manhattan Brothers, Patience and Fortitude

Still waiting...still antsy...

I know this song in the Manhattan Brothers version, but there's also more famous cover by the Andrews Sisters (who were one of the inspirations for the Manhattan Brothers' South African contemporaries, the Skylarks). There's also a version by the jazz singer Valaida Snow, who may--or may not! have been imprisoned by the Nazis in Denmark in 1941.

And thanks to the randomness that is Google search, I now know that Patience and Fortitude are also the names of the lions who flank the entrance to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

The Freedmen's Bureau Project

Most people don't rejoice to find out that 19th-century banking records have been preserved, but writers of historical fiction are notoriously weird, and I was more than delighted to discover that the Freedmen's Bureau project had 1) decided to help people use the records associated with organizations for newly-freed slaves for genealogical research and 2) was directing them to the bank records in particular.

The bankers collected information on all of their account holders, going beyond the expected data of gender, age, address, and occupation to ask their customers about their place of origin and their families, both the ones they had created through marriage as well as the ones they had lost during slavery. I have pored over the Atlanta records for 1870 and they are full of stories.

But the Freedmen's Bureau website has captivated me for another reason--the images they use to connect the present and the past. They meld the historic and the contemporary in a wonderful way--like this image of two young women, and this one, of two young men. I can't  remember when I have seen a better visual metaphor.

What I'm Reading: Sea View Secret

Sea View Secret Cover.jpg

Rather, what I recall reading. I read this book when I was in grade school and it popped into my mind a few weeks ago. It's a pitch-perfect mysetery story, set in a suburban neighborhood that has one old house remaining--the house that contains a secret.

It's still in print--but I suddenly had a yearning to see the cover of the edition I read. These days, I'm more inclined to read ebooks than print, and tell myself that I don't really care about the heft of a volume or the appearance of a cover. But that cover was more evocative than I realized.

Music To Write To: Jimmy Cliff, Sitting in Limbo

I've mentioned Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get it if You Really Want" before, but this week, as I wait to hear from my editor about the direction my next book should take, I find myself inspired by "Sitting in Limbo." Cliff wrote it after the death of his long-time producer, Leslie Kong, as he searched his soul as to how he should proceed in his musical career. He began to produce his own work, and made a success of it. As an independent--and impatient!--author, it helps me to know how he felt before he did so.

Music To Write To: The Manhattan Brothers

As much as I like the music that grew from the song traditions of West Africa, South African music gives it a good run for the money. I especially like the moment in South African music when singers, musicians and producers discovered American musical forms that had been influenced by Africa in the first place--jazz and doowop.

Like one of my favorite groups, the Manhattan Brothers.


Hidden Figures: Genetic Surprises

As more people take DNA tests to reveal their ancestry, more people are learning that along with the ancestry they always knew about, there's some sub-Saharan Africa in there, too. One of the DNA testing services, 23andMe, has reported on a study that estimates that 4 percent of whites in the United States have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry. That's a fair number of people to be surprised.

(I was not surprised by my own DNA test. It was the other way around.)

So the question that came to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s on his website The Root, "A DNA Test Says I’m Part Black. How Do I Embrace That?" is a sign of the times. News that would have been devastating decades ago is now intriguing, and to be treated with respect.

Professor Gates' advice: ease into it.


What I'm Reading: Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior

I'm glad to see fantasy rooted in the culture and the spirit of Africa--in this case, Nigeria, contemporary and mythical. I particularly enjoyed the way Okorafor intertwined a  portrayal of the life of well-to-do urban Nigerians with mythical elements, real and fantastical.

Also, as someone who pays attention to these things, the book has a wonderful cover.


Music To Write To: Curtis Harding

When I first heard this song I thought that Curtis Harding was a Motown great I'd somehow missed. I heard echoes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Smokey Robinson in his voice. He is indeed from Michigan and steeped in the musical traditions of gospel and soul, but his latest album came out in 2017.

Here's the title song: "Face Your Fear."