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Caramelo, Rebecca, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, The Snow Child, Galore

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Caramelo is a multi-generational family saga that revolves around Celaya, a.k.a. Lala, the only daughter in a family of sons. Her childhood is spent in Mexico, Chicago, and Texas, transversing cultures, languages, and fragmented identities. She’s a bit of a tomboy: tough, funny, but a little unsure of herself all the same. It’s only in piecing together her family’s tumultuous history that she is able to situate herself and put roots to her own experiences. I loved the way that Cisneros incorporates both English and Spanish into her prose, the way she references real historical/political events (most apparent in the narrative of The Little Grandfather’s experience in the Mexican Army), and most of all I appreciated the in-text dialogue that Lala has with The Awful Grandmother, who keeps interrupting her narrative to question her framing of things, her omitting of certain details and her emphasis of others. This is a story about how stories get told, and why, as much as it is about a particular individual, family, and community of migrants. A wonderful, thoughtful, rambling novel, full of contradictory characters, intense infatuations, and unpredictable unravellings. Fantastic!

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Oh, Rebecca. Rebecca is just as perfect as everyone who’s ever told you to read it has promised it would be. Mrs. de Winter is the paid companion of a rich, boring socialite when she meets Maxim on vacation in Italy. In him she finds romance as well as financial stability and a way out of her dead-end present. But when she comes to Maxim’s estate, Manderley, a new bride after a rushed marriage and a short honeymoon, she feels…unsettled. She is intimidated by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seems immediately to dislike her, and she is uncomfortable in her new role as lady of the house. She has big shoes to fill, she knows, for Maxim has been married before. And his previous wife was everything that the current Mrs. de Winter is not: confined and composed, a dark, classic beauty, the perfect hostess. In every corner of the unfamiliar house, the new Mrs. de Winter catches hints of Rebecca, and her lingering presence taunts her. Rebecca builds slowly, creepily, avoiding cliche and indulging in the most lovely descriptions, reveling in archetype. Read it on a rainy, snowy, or otherwise foreboding night.

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The stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise populated with women who are struggling with loss, family, and questions about personal evolution and “biological destiny”. They are animal hoarders, bird watchers, veterinarians or married to veterinarians, each working to define their relationships to nature through their relationships with other animals. Bergman uses animals both captive and wild to play around with what might be parallels to her characters’ subjectivity as women working toward and against bonds of domesticity and freedom. In “Housewifely Arts”, a woman takes her son on a search for a parrot capable of mimicking her dead mother’s voice, and in another favorite of mine, “The Artificial Heart”, a woman wonders about the moral implications of life-extending technology that keeps her father alive in a semi-apocalyptic world. Some of Bergman’s characters were repetitious, while others felt more satirical than real (I’m thinking of the anti-population growth activist/husband in “Yesterday’s Whales”). Regardless, each story in this collection arced gracefully and gave me something lasting and multi-layered to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed these stories and eagerly await future releases from Bergman!

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Though a very different reading experience, The Snow Child  in some way fits thematically with Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Craving a change of scenery following a terrible, personal tragedy, Mabel and Jack become early settlers of the Alaskan frontier. They fight against the cold, the brutality of the land and their surroundings, and growing emotional distance. One blistery night in the middle of winter, they build themselves a child out of snow, and shortly thereafter begin to see a young girl alone in the woods. Familiar with the Russian fairy tale, Mabel convinces herself that the child is theirs, that she was borne of hope and snow. But, however mysterious, the Snow Child does have a very real history of her own, and is as untamable and foreign as the Alaskan wilderness itself. The story is tense and moving, as the reader must come to wish for the best possible outcome for Jack and Mabel, yet can’t shake the worry that there isn’t something to the warnings inherent in that fairy tale, after all. This book was strange, entrancing, and masterfully told. A new favorite!

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Unfortunately, Galore broke my winning streak. It had so much potential, too. An interesting departure…a pale man found alive in the belly of a whale beached upon the coast of newly settled Newfoundland, whose mute presence has inexplicable effects the people who find him…an intriguingly convoluted family tree and feud that survives multiple generations…and complex mythological undertones drawn from folklore and Methodism. While the idea behind this book was magnificent, and I was really looking forward to it, I found Crummey’s writing dry and his recounting of events tedious. I felt that the constant reference to the relationships between successive generations of the townspeople drew my attention away from what I found magical about the world he’d constructed. All the pieces were there; I wished he’d spent more time on plot, on playing around within the world he’d created, than reinforcing it’s boundaries and contents. I loved the dark mystery that pervaded the novel. I did not love the energy I had to expend on keeping names and eras in place and, personally, I would have liked the second half to have been more concise, with clearer intent. Oh, well.

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Poetry!

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ALRIGHT! So poetry is a genre I’ve had very little experience with, but I’ve enjoyed the collected works of Emily Dickens and plenty of one-offs recently, so have been slowly pulled into its orbit. This year I’d like to make a concerted effort to explore poetry more fully. I’m not going to set myself a specific goal or challenge or anything, but here’s a list I’ve been compiling for a while of poetry that interests me. I think I’ll start with something akin to a novel-in-verse, as narrative poetry is the kind that’s been most compelling to me thus far, and then dabble!

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dante’s Inferno, by Dante Alighieri

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The World Doesn’t End, by Charles Simic

The War Poems, by Wilfred Owen

The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Ariel, by Sylvia Plath

The Collected Poems, by Langston Hughes

The Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché

The Moon is Always Female, by Marge Piercy

The Fact of a Doorframe, by Adrienne Rich

The Great Fires, by Jack Gilbert

Map of the Lost, by Miriam Sagan

The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, by Pablo Neruda

A Village Life, by Louise Glück

Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes

The Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney

Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith

Voices, by Lucille Clifton

Breaking Poems, by Suheir Hammed

Citizen, by Aaron Shurin

Smith Blue, by Camille T. Dungy

Pretty Tilt, by Carrie Murphy

As I’ve said though, I’ve had very little exposure to poetry and so I don’t really know where to start. This list is incomplete and only a rough jumping-off point. Now that I’m looking at it all typed out, I realize that it’s made up almost entirely of works by European and American poets, which is unsatisfactory. Clearly, I need to do some more pointed research, and will be updating this list as I go. General recommendations are greatly appreciated, and specific ones for poets from non-Western countries are even more so!

Do you have a favorite poet? Collection? Single work? Let me know!

Written by Emily Jane

January 13, 2013 at 1:15 am

Posted in Poetry

Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, by Philip McFarland

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Mark Twain Theordore Roosevelt

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt were two of the most famous men in America at the turn of the century, but had little in common besides an intense mutual dislike of each other. Where Roosevelt was a beloved leader, Twain had his finger on the country’s cultural pulse and was a sort of pre-pop icon. Twain was immensely famous in his own lifetime, and traveled in many of the same circles as did the president. Though they only met briefly a few times, they were each highly aware of the other’s career and looked upon each other with disdain. Mark Twain may have been known as a writer and humorist, but much of his work was politically engaged and often critical of Roosevelt’s administration in particular. In fact, Twain once went so far as to write that Theodore Roosevelt was “far and away the worst president we have ever had”. Roosevelt, in turn, found Twain so irritating and meddlesome that he was once said to have dreamt aloud of skinning Mark Twain alive.

Twain and Roosevelt were representative of two different facets of American masculinity in an era wrought with change due to industrialization, urbanization, and imperialism, the last of which became the most hotly contested issue between the two men when Roosevelt lead America in occupation of the Philippines. Twain had written the blueprint for American boyhood with his stories about the boisterous Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, reflecting a folksy Americana and drawing from his own childhood despite his relatively privileged upbringing. Roosevelt, an east coast War Hero, was known for restraint, discipline, and a love of hunting, which Twain found grotesque. If my post so far seems to center Twain’s reactions to Roosevelt’s policies, that’s because McFarland himself seems to favor Twain and rely on these reactions for marking narrative transitions.

The first real problem I had with this book is that all physical and otherwise direct interaction between the men was so few and far between that a joint biography makes little sense. Had the framing been skewed to focus more on the ways in each man was symbolic of a different set of American values at a particular time (which it did, only not enough) instead of constructing an active rivalry from little more than a couple heated opinions on the part of each man, perhaps the tie that binds the two biographies would not have been so weak.

This would not, unfortunately, do away with the problem of organization. The book moves thematically rather than chronologically, which might work better were it not so repetitive. To come to the point of the death of Twain’s daughter or Roosevelt’s marriage multiple times following the tellings of different events was perhaps meant to emphasize the importance of those events in multiple contexts, but instead confused me entirely about where I was in each man’s life story and also bored me.

McFarland is a perfectly capable historian whose passion is evident in his writing, but while the relationships both personal and impersonal between Twain and Roosevelt is tempting material, it appears a thin foundation for such a lengthy and ambitious work.

A copy of Mark Twain and the Colonel was kindly sent to me by the folks at Newman Communications on behalf of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Written by Emily Jane

January 8, 2013 at 12:28 am

The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville: Benito Cereno/Bartleby the Scrivener/The Encantadas/Billy Budd, Foretopman

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Oh, Melville! There was not one story, or novella, in this collection that did not tussle my hair with wind, spritz my skin with salt-spray, or intimidate me with the threatening sound of white-capped waves slapping the side of an old, leaky ship (save Bartleby, which is no less fantastic for it’s relatively mundane setting). I was equally transported by each, across a world of land and sea.

In Benito Cereno, our narrator witnesses a strange vessel rush to the shore of a vacant island with sails tattered and flapping. The mysterious craft looks in no shape to start trouble, so he boards with the intention of lending a helping hand. But something seems…off, with both the evasive captain and the menacing crew. I liked the way the narrator flip-flops in his interpretation of what’s going on: his discovery is not a slow dawning of the truth, but a constant interrogation of bizarre surroundings. Sadly, but fittingly for Melville’s time and place, this story is heavy on Heart of Darkness-style racism  which is used to play up the unsettling tone of the story and the savagery of past events aboard ship, intermittently revealed. Nevertheless, it’s tied up in a manner I found quite satisfying. The final paragraphs pack a creepy, powerful punch!

It’s slightly shameful that it has taken me so long to read the second story, Bartleby the Scrivener, since I’ve watched the movie adaptation with Crispin Glover a number of times already and am not at all opposed to watching it again.* In Melville’s original, it’s startling how quickly Bartleby begins to issue his “I’d prefer not to”s, and how earnestly his boss works to understand his employee’s refusal to do, well, anything. He really tries to get into Bartleby’s head, and feels a genuine sympathy for him, imagining how such a person could make it so far in life, and what such a life must entail. What could make a person so obstinate, so anti-authoritarian, so disruptive to simple bureaucracy by his very temperament and presence?

The third, The Encantadas, was my favorite. It’s almost out of place, as it doesn’t contain a standard, cohesive narrative. It’s a portrait of a place, a sketch of the many enchanted isles that make up the cluster known for misleading lost crews. It’s a place where compass needles spin wildly and ghost ships appear and disappear into the mist. A place where people have never lived that draws them in with the hunger of a bottomless stomach. One that doesn’t show up on maps, but is legend to all who’ve spent time at sea. Some micro-histories of sea-faring fellows’ contact with the islands are provided, a sort of warning about nature’s imperviousness to human willpower, an environment that promises eternal exploration and unknowing.

The last novella, Billy Budd, might have held the least pull for me, but only just so. Billy is a handsome and extremely popular sailer born of low means and conscripted into service. For all but the captain, he is a golden child and can do no wrong. But the captain disdains him and, with a paranoia likely mirroring the real feelings of captains at the time following true and recent mutinous events, accuses him of organizing against him. In a frustrating confrontation, Billy accidentally kills Captain Claggart, and despite everyone else’s conviction that he is a good man and didn’t mean to, they are committed to upholding The Law. I like the contradiction here between what is legal and what is right, though after having heard inferences of a gay subtext in this plot I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t much make it out. Or, maybe I have, but I’m not sure about it. Is it that the descriptions of Billy as handsome and perfect imply desirability amongst an all male crew? Is it that Claggart hates him in the way school kids hate on their crushes, and kills that impulse by causing his downfall? I know this is only one reading of the text, but it’s a popular one, right? I think I might need to read this one more closely, or seek out a critical essay or something about it.

As I’ve hopefully made obvious, I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Melville…much more than I expected to. I never truly considered that I would before, but I’ll be damned if that taste of his work hasn’t inclined me toward taking a stab at Moby Dick some day.

*Bartleby is now streaming on Netflix! It is weird and fun and the set is in the style of that town in Edward Scissorhands, and Crispin is great as Bartleby, so consider this a recommendation (but it is weird, so I’ll be sorry if you do take this recommendation and then hate it, as both my mom and brother have done. Oops :/)

Written by Emily Jane

November 5, 2012 at 5:45 am

Catching Up pt. 3: A Natural History of the Senses, The Housemaid, North and South, The Book of the City of Ladies, Epileptic

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In A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman draws from a number of sources and memories in a meandering rumination about the senses through which we understand the world and interpret our own human experience. It is particularly hard to communicate the specificity of different physical sensations, but Ackerman writes about smells, touch, and the like so effectively that these mercurial interpretations manifest concretely and jump straight off the page, making the reading experience, well, sensual. The book is filled with interesting trivia, such as that smell was likely the first sense developed in the primordial oceans by the earliest living organisms, and I enjoyed the recounting she did of an interview with a professional “nose”, or perfume mixologist. Clearly I was most won over by the chapter on smell, as it sticks most strongly in my memory. However, I became increasingly annoyed with Ackerman and her frequent, bizarrely specific and lengthy descriptors. They often distracted from her main point and felt unfocused, a feeling intensified by the book’s format of short, thematically arranged but otherwise non-sequitor chapters. Also, while not generally opposed to heavy reliance on anecdote, hers felt obnoxiously self-referential and pompous. So, while the subject matter was fascinating, I didn’t really get along with Ackerman very well and will likely avoid her other writing.

One day, an older woman labeled a “witch” and disowned by her grown children finds a dead infant abandoned behind her hut in rural Ghana. Word spreads quickly through her village and suddenly everyone is arguing about who is to blame, with men vilifying the imagined neglectful mother and the women bemoaning the sad arrogance of undependable men. But as the true story of what happened is told through the perspectives of a number of women, it becomes clear that this child’s death is not the fault of one or another sex, but a society in which exploitation is quickly becoming a dominant means of attaining wealth. It begins when a young housemaid travels from her village to Accra to work for a wealthy older woman whose deceased husband’s family believes that her money rightfully belongs to them. The housemaid gets caught up in a plot of inheritance to win back the money for the husband’s family, but does not realize that her employer, though happy and confident in her independence, is not free of the sexual demands of the businessmen who remain in a class above her and so is not easy to manipulate. Nor does she understand that her own family’s motives may not be good for her, personally. The final telling of what happens to her baby is tragic but it is the fault of no individual: instead, it is the result of greed and an caustic individualism. A very worthy novella that counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge.

I’d been wanting to read North and South forever, but passed up the North and South read-a-long because it overlapped with my trip to Kenya and then promptly forgot about it. Even though I coincidentally ended up reading it at the same time as the read-a-long, I guess it’s still good that I wasn’t signed up because I didn’t have regular internet access nor the time to participate in the discussions, but anyway. I had huge expectations for this book, and while I enjoyed it, it fell just a little flat for me. It’s hard not to compare Gaskell to her contemporaries: not as much nuance as Austen, not as righteous as Dickens, less detailed than both. Perhaps such comparisons are unfair, but some combination of Austen and Dickens is what I thought I was going to get. Margaret, who moves from an idyllic country village to a busy, crowded industrial town, falls in love with the rugged Mr. Thornton (about whom I agree with Iris is a much more worthy love interest than most of Austen’s suitors ;)). There, she befriends some of the working poor that she’d previously been so judgmental about, and sides with them in a strike against factory-owner Thornton. Thornton, a proud, self-made man, learns through Margaret to sympathize with those less successful than he in “working their way up” while Margaret reconciles herself to the reality that the country isn’t exactly paradise for the poor, either. Culture clash, class, and the industrial boom frame this troubled love story, and I appreciate how direct Gaskell was in dealing with such themes. However, there was a bit too much compromise and neatness in the way it all wrapped up for my taste. Still liked it, though, so will try more of Gaskell.

This was (ahem) the FIRST book listed for The Year of Feminist Classics challenge* and yes, I only got to it last month. This book was written by Christine de Pizan, the only (?) professional female writer in late fourteenth century Europe. It is impressive not only that she was able to support her family with her writing at this time, but that she was able to do so while unequivocally challenging the most common anti-woman sentiments of her day. Here, she imagines a scenario in which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice come to her aid embodied as three strong and lovely women to help her construct a city of positive history and mythology in which she will collect and house all the world’s most virtuous ladies. They do so first by debunking myths such as that women are natural liars, that they lack conviction and are emotionally weak, that they are selfish and are intellectually inferior to men. Much as Mary Wollstonecraft would do almost four hundred years later in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, de Pizan argues that it is the way in which society brings girls up differently from boys that makes these stereotypes appear true and universal, but that given an equal education, girls would show as much aptitude as boys and in the same subjects (she does, however, fall very short of actually advocating for this). While her argumentation rested on reworking mythology, and this is not an acceptable form of debate nowadays, it was then–and since I was unfamiliar with so many of the stories, I kind of got a kick out of ’em despite the fact that it became very, very tedious reading. All the stuff about being a good, chaste wife etc. was irritating to my modern sensibilities, too, but I get that then she was reacting against the fact that women were only thought to be about their bodies, rooted in materiality with no spiritual or mental inner lives and value. I wouldn’t call this book relevant for feminists today, but I still enjoyed it as a feminist for the times when de Pizan utilized her stinging sense of humor and because it really made me consider context. It’s interesting to see that some ideas which are completely regressive and sexist now were once a step AWAY from an oppression that we still know, but in a completely different transformative phase. Of course, not all reactions against oppression are “progressive”, nor can that word be applied evenly across cultures and eras, which raises a lot of important questions about what constitutes progress in any given situation.

Epileptic is the deeply troubling autobiographical story by David B., formerly Pierre-Francois Beauchard, whose life has largely been shaped by his brother’s epilepsy and his family’s never-ending search for a cure. Epilepsy was little understood in 1960’s France when Jean-Christophe had his first seizure, and one of the most horrific aspects to this family history is how cruelly Jean-Christophe was treated by children and adults alike, alienating him, his siblings, and his parents from the community as punishment for exposing them to the symptoms of his illness. Their parents move Pierre-Francois, Jean-Christophe, and their sister in and out of various new-agey macrobiotic communes, inspiring hope in an unrelenting succession of mystical mentors and spiritual healers who are ultimately as lost as they are. While his parents experience increasing guilt after every failure to “fix” their eldest son and his sister becomes despondent with depression, David B. pours himself into his illustrations, picturing epic uphill battles that signify his struggle against his brother’s sickness. His thick, bold-lined drawings are appropriately claustrophobic and disconcerting, adding a fantastical element to this tragedy. David B. is always honest, refusing to leave out the ugliest bits of his history and the resentment he sometimes felt toward his brother, whose disease he could never measure up to. Dark and moving; beautiful work and intensely raw.

*I think it’s time I admitted to myself and everyone else that I’m not going to catch up on The Feminists Classics challenge this fall like I wanted to. In fact, there’s only a few books from this year’s selection that I haven’t read, but even excluding re-reads, it just isn’t going to happen. Truth be told, I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of a Very Bad Thing that happened earlier this month in the life of myself and my friends and have had difficulty concentrating on books, so I know that if I don’t allow myself to read at whim I won’t be doing much reading at all, and I don’t want that. Sincerest apologies for committing to it and then only reading one book and not participating in any of the conversations**…hopefully I will get to all the others at a later date, as they all remain interesting to me. I still plan to host the last read when the time comes, but all reading projects and such will otherwise be put on hold or ignored.

**Hello, guilt.

Catching Up pt. 2: Imperial Reckoning, The Thing Around Your Neck, The Warden, Other Powers, The Bone People

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Elkins began researching the Mau Mau uprising for her dissertation, but the history she uncovered was so much more brutal than the (brutal) murders of white British settlers that she set out to find. This book was the product of a decades’ worth of research into the detention, starvation, and torture of over half a million of one of Kenya’s largest minority ethnic groups, the Kikuyu, by the colonial British in the 1950’s. Less than ten years after joining the fight against Germany in WWII, the British forced almost all of Kenya’s Kikuyu into concentration camps of their own, where they were subject to all of the same dehumanizing treatments that could be found in Germany’s death camps short of outright genocide–very short. By rhetorically framing the Mau Mau resurrection as barbarism and the Kikuyu as uncivilized, they were able to extinguish categorical distinctions between the two, equating all Kikuyu with Mau Mau, and denounce them for their dangerous natures, thereby justifying their detainment. The murders of tens of white settler families committed by the Mau Mau in defense of stolen land were certainly horrific, but the persistent labeling of them as terrorists (as well as subhuman), as opposed to freedom fighters in defense of a legitimate cause, was strategically meant to detract attention from the widespread systematic violence enacted upon the Kikuyu by the British over the course of a decade in a deadly show of authority. In case that distraction wasn’t enough, colonial offices were very thorough at destroying evidence. Nonetheless, Elkins painstakingly uncovers and describes each stage of “The Pipeline” camp system and reveals the identity of those who participated in the maintaining the camps, including missionary groups. Equally disturbing was the way in which the British rewarded “saved” or “confessed” Kikuyu with official status within the camps and set up their recently colonized Indian underclass as military officers, small business owners, and politicians within Kenya, sowing seeds of disunity that would persist through Kenyan independence in the 60’s. I read this book for my Kenya project, and it also counts toward Kinna’s Africa challenge. It was mind-blowing to read this while actually in Kenya, and to understand that despite the culture of silence around these events, the wounds are so recent, the country is so young, the human capacity for evil is so strong.

Adichie became an instant favorite of mine after reading Half of a Yellow Sun and seeing her participate in a talk last spring at the Met on something like The Hero in African art. This collection of short stories deals with the Nigerian diaspora: what it takes to leave the country, what it means to be representative of the country, what it means to be a Nigerian outside of Nigeria, what it means to be someone neither here nor there. If you’ve watched Adichie’s bit on The Danger of a Single Story, you know that she’s particularly interested in the ways in which we frame our own self-understandings, and the need to assert them on our own terms so that they’re not obscured and made homogenous by the dominant culture. Her subjects come from a variety of backgrounds and deal with the feeling of dislocation in different ways and settings. This theme was made most explicit in the story “The American Embassy”, in which a woman wonders how best to present her difficult past to the authorities, how to manipulate the too-real danger she’s in in such a way that they will understand and grant her asylum. My favorite story, though, was “Jumping Monkey Hill”, about a Nigerian woman writer who must defend her piece as “authentically African” to a workshop led by a sexually harassing older man in South Africa who insists that the behavior of her protagonist is unrealistic. The final story, “The Headstrong Historian”, reminded me of The River and the Source in the way that it portrayed the passing effects of generations on one family, though it was slightly more ambivalent about the outcome. Of course, some stories stuck with me better than others, but there weren’t any in this collection that I didn’t enjoy or find interesting at some level.

In this novel, the introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire, the clergyman Mr. Harding enjoys a comfortable country existence with his daughter, Eleanor, as warden of a home for the old and infirm. The young city reformer John Bold, however, takes issue with the sizable amount that Mr. Harding receives for this position, pointing out that, at the time of the will, the law was such that the difference in allowance between Mr. Harding’s and his wards would have been less, that certainly the will was not written with recent changes in land tax and such in mind that has so unfairly benefitted Mr. Harding instead of the institution’s poor elderly. In taking legal action and turning the wards against him, Bold risks more than the ill-will of Mr. Harding’s church community–he risks losing the love of his life, Mr. Harding’s daughter. However, the battle between Bold and Harding is not so simple, for Mr. Harding, having never given the issue much thought, is horrified to think he might be living immorally, and Bold increasingly wonders whether the potential ruin of lover’s father, a good man, is worth the point he wishes to make about economic inequality. I found Trollope’s descriptions of the setting evocative, and liked that most of his characters were made multi-dimensional in relatively few pages. However, I thought The Warden was kind of boring. Differing interpretations of a will, all of which might imply only slightly different outcomes, wasn’t enough to make me feel any kind of tension or suspense. I wasn’t invested. A subplot or two might have helped, but then The Warden would had to have been a completely different book. I read this one because pretty much everyone everywhere has always told me that it’s great (okay, a *slight* exaggeration), but I was underwhelmed. If I didn’t like The Warden all that much, might I enjoy the rest of the series? Or should I assume it’s not for me?

Victoria Woodhull, at different times a prostitute, free lover, spiritualist, suffragist, and a presidential candidate, lived during one of the most outrageously transformative eras of American history: the second half of the 19th century. She was such an enigmatic and adventurous character that, in this book, Goldsmith is able to use her personal history to bring to life the entire period of reform and conflict. She touches on everything from the Civil War and abolition to Reformation and the western expansion of the railroad, the declining reign of circus entertainment and the post-Gold Rush market crash to the successes and failures of early feminist organizations and the celebrity awarded spiritualist seers and mediums. At the center of Goldsmith’s narrative, though, is Woodhull’s influence on the Beecher-Tilton adultery trial, a trial that held the public in thrall for over two years as they awaited the verdict on the fidelity of Henry Ward Beecher, one of America’s favorite preachers. This event speaks worlds about the sexual politics of the day as they were typically understood by the public at large, and as they were challenged vociferously by Woodhull. If this makes it sound as though Goldsmith might have been too ambitious with this book, as though this was simply too much to try to cover all at once, I would understand. But, believe me: Goldsmith DOES IT. AND she makes it look easy. She connects the dots, weaving a thick fabric of different historical threads that really DO all come together in a very clear and satisfying picture. And through it all, Woodhull is not lost. Widely ostracized in her own time by almost all of her contemporaries working equally hard to hasten justice, Goldsmith brilliantly portrays Woodhull as complex, erratic, imperfect, and catalytic. This might be the BEST book about American history I’ve ever read, so I urge all with a passing interest to give it a try. I’ll go so far as to say I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t fully engage and absorb you. I can’t wait to encounter Goldsmith again! And: despite the fact that it wasn’t on my initial list, I’m going to go ahead and count this book towards my spiritualism project, since Woodhull was a popular spiritualist figure and I did learn some new things about what that meant at the time, so why not.

Ooof, The Bone People. Where to start with this one?! Kerewin is part Maori, part European, and lives on the coast of her native New Zealand in an old lighthouse tower with a spiral staircase. She’s a failed painter, incredibly bitter and misanthropic, desiring no company but wine, whiskey, rum…or whatever alcohol’s around. But company finds its way to her in the form of a strange young boy who can’t speak, yet communicates worlds of mysterious origin and pain. When she meets his adoptive father and finds something about the sad man alluring, she becomes swept up in their bizarre, severely dysfunctional little patchwork family. With each member representing different aspects of culture clash, Kerewin must revisit her own past even as they’re focused on uncovering the boy’s. Unfortunately, they are all so focused on what’s happened that they’re blinded to the inevitable future of hurt that lays before them, one from which they may or may not heal. Hulme’s writing is exceptional. I’ve never read prose quite like hers, so playful and clever yet…harsh. The real magic of the book is the subtle sense of foreboding you feel from the first few pages, a sense that only grows stronger despite a lack of tangible evidence that it should. This odd tale had me on tenterhooks before I realized there really was something to be concerned about, here. Namely, the psychology of abuse, so frighteningly dissected. The power of this novel had me jaw-dropped, but it’s likely not for everyone, particularly those with special sensitivities to violence against children. The one thing I wished for more of was Kerewin’s familial backstory; I hoped that the more mythological part at the end would wrap up more neatly and concretely. Regardless, this book has haunted me since I finished it, and I’m sure I won’t forget it any time soon.

Catching Up pt. 1: The Moonstone, The River and the Source, Harvard’s Secret Court, Davita’s Harp, A Persian Requiem

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Well, I’m back from an amazing, stimulating, exhausting trip to Kenya, and now it’s time to whip this blog back into shape. I’m much too far behind to write full reactions to everything I’ve procrastinated writing about this summer, which is really too bad since almost all these books are quite deserving of them! May some mini-reviews suffice to merely bring me up to speed:

Wilkie Collins won my heart with The Woman in White last year and The Moonstone resolutely confirmed my love. This mystery is told from the revolving perspectives of a strong cast of diverse characters, all with distinctive voices and hidden agendas, reflecting on the night that a famous gemstone was presented to one Rachel Verinder on her birthday by her uncle only to go missing that very night. A detective is called in to unravel what can only be a messy family affair, but quickly realizes that the case of the missing moonstone diamond, taken from a Hindu shrine by Rachel’s uncle during the siege of Seringapatam, is not confined to the Verinder family or estate. In fact, the mystery of the stone’s repeated disappearances spans continents, cultures, and centuries. My copy includes an excellent introduction which makes the point that, though Collins plays on orientalist fears of the Indian Other, he also raises the question as to what constitutes theft in a colonial context. No one is completely innocent…but are they all thieves to the same degree? This, along with Collins’ exquisite storytelling, made The Moonstone one of this year’s favorites.

This book was one of my Kenya project reads, and also counts toward Kinna’s Africa Challenge. The River and the Source follows four generations of women through changes like colonialism and urbanization, faith and learning. It begins with Akoko, the most beautiful and respected young woman in her Luo community, renowned for her intelligence and character. Her daughter embarks on a new path when she converts to Christianity and enrolls her children in a religious school, from which her daughter eventually graduates before moving to Nairobi. This daughter’s own children, headed toward medical school, now lead an entirely different kind of life from their grandmother and great-grandmother, Akoko, yet Akoko’s strength of spirit appears to be genetic and nourishes each woman through adulthood and self-realization. This short  novel is certainly sweeping, but flows so well that it’s not distracting or fragmentary. I really liked the way that the women in this story were so encouraging of each other in every new thing they tried, confident that even the biggest mistakes contain opportunity, that temporality is to be embraced though memory of the past is key to understanding the present. A real pleasure.

Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Homosexuals started off strong. Wright effectively personalizes the stories of the many young men who were cruelly, quietly, and systematically persecuted by that great so-considered bastion of enlightenment, Harvard University, for their real or perceived homosexuality. Not only were entire groups of friends expelled from the ivy league, but they remained the targets of school officials throughout their entire lives, suffering obstacles to further education and employment. Gay and/or effeminate men within school bounds as well as outside them (particularly in port communities) became scapegoats, unsurprisingly, at exactly the moment at which Harvard was forced to re-define “The Harvard Man” due to the increasing presence of Jews, Irish and Italian immigrants, and women. This history is fascinating, disturbing, and important; I applaud Wright for bringing it to light. However, he started to lose me about halfway through the book, when he started to stray from events and began to speculate on the “true” sexualities of those involved in the purge: i.e., whether or not they were truly gay, kind of gay, or just experimenting (?). I wasn’t comfortable with the authority he claimed to determine the nature of his subjects’ experiences, nor was I willing to take for granted that such experiences must be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I didn’t see why such a determination would be relevant to a history of discrimination, anyway. He officially lost me toward the end, though, when it seemed he was trying to tie up his narrative by relating this purge to a universal, ever-present phenomena of homophobia which he claims is innate in human nature (!), suggested by the fact that it is often a “gut-reaction” that is not always adequately challenged by the application of logical thought. If you can count all the problems implicit in that line of reasoning, you get a GOLD STAR! I can’t.

When I read My Name Is Asher Lev last year, I was blown away, and after Jenny told me that she loved The Chosen so much that she didn’t want to read another of Potok’s novels for fear of disappointment, I got it into my head that disappointment by ANY of his novels was unlikely. Well, Davita’s Harp was a dose of reality. Davita, the daughter of atheist communist activists in early twentieth century Brooklyn, experiences real loss and must confront Life’s Big Questions at an early age. The century’s extremist politics play themselves out in her living room, but she can’t reconcile them with her personal experience without connecting to her Jewish faith and community. To her parent’s surprise, Davita’s struggle is not undermined by her commitment to religion, or the “opiate of the masses”. In fact, religious observation enables Davita to wrestle with global and historical injustice in a meaningful, constructive manner. Davita is precocious, ambitious, and best of all, she’s critical of the sexism that she encounters in Orthodox circles, making her an inspiring protagonist whose development offers promising insight. Davita’s Harp has a lot to offer young readers but, unlike the child narrator in My Name is Asher Lev, Davita’s voice does not transcend age barriers well. Moreover, the story was just kind of slow and…boring. Something about the pacing. Eh, too bad, really. Better luck next time?

In 1969, Simin Daneshvar became the first published woman novelist in Iran, though this was not the first of all the firsts to her name. Nor is this the reason that A Persian Requiem is still (apparently) widely read. No, A Persian Requiem is still (apparently) widely read, I believe, because it’s good. REALLY good. Zari, the book’s protagonist, must keep her family safe when her husband Yusof refuses to sacrifice his peasant’s crops to British and Indian occupying soldiers. This means carefully navigating personally detrimental social relationships amongst the town’s upper classes, maintaining communal goodwill, and thanking God for the safe delivery of her eldest child by acting on her vow to visit weekly with prisoners and the mentally ill. Her husband is courageous, acting to force the hand of the future and bend the will of progress. But she is courageous, too, and is determined to prove it despite of–no, through–dedication to her children. In other words, she struggles with the role of woman as described by Simone de Beauvouir, to re-produce the very means of life from which men make “the world”. Recognizing this limitation, she wrestles with it, finding strength within it even as it’s redefined. This is a story written around many stories, with colorful characters written throughout, from the Irish once-journalist to the unstable, imprisoned feminist revolutionary. While I appreciated her class and gender themes the most, Daneshvar’s prose and scope encourage me to recommend her to all regardless of interest in those particular narrative threads. There’s a little something for everyone in this novel, I’ll bet.

…and that’s all for now. Part 2 coming soon. Feels good to be back, all!