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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.

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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!

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

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A few months ago, I was suffering one of the worst reading slumps ever. I wasn’t in the mood for anything I usually like…so I decided to try something I don’t normally read at all, thinking maybe a big change in reading material might give me some sort of jolt. Though I’ve never gotten into sci-fi lit, it’s one of my favorite movie/TV genres (is that weird?)…so I decided to give the literature another go.

I picked up Neuromancer because I’d heard it was a “classic” of the cyberpunk genre and I’d just re-watched Hackers, which I guess had whetted my appetite. Neuromancer, the first in a trilogy, centers Case, a retired console-cowboy-turned-junkie who is coerced by the ring leader of some sketchy shadow organization to train for one last big trip through the net where he is to steal data from one of the most powerful, secretive companies in the world. But he begins to receive mixed messages from people both present and non-corporeal, leading him to question the real identity and motives of the consciousness from which he is taking orders. His misadventures take him through the black markets of biotechnological reconstruction, military cover-ups, and grisly neon-lit alley murders. With the help of a highly skilled but antagonistic team, Case and his crew break codes no one has before, but once they gain access to the most prized information in the matrix, what is it they find? And how will they make it out?

Gibson uses all kinds of tough, sleek sounding slang that builds tension and makes one feel they’re traveling quickly along invisible wire. As it was published fifteen years before The Matrix came out, it’s clear that Gibson was ahead of the game, and it’s cool to return to a text that obviously inspired so many similarly themed stories even before computers were everyday, at-home-technology. As our experience with technology has only become more complicated, nuanced, and constant, the questions Gibson raises about identity and artificial intelligence are only that much more interesting.

However, my experience with Neuromancer was completely middling. While the plot was fun, there was really no character development and the dialogue was horrendous. It was stilted and cliche, as was the character Molly, Case’s co-conspirator and sometimes lover, who was the only real female character in the book and also the most absurd. She was completely flat, hypersexualized, and seemed to have little life purpose but to be present for Case. She was like an ass-kicking Lara Croft type woman but with less story-background and relegated to the role of girlfriend/side-kick*, which was just kind of eye-rollingly hard to take seriously.

I think there’s still a chance out there for me and cyperpunk/sci-fi lit, or what have you, but if we ever truly hit it off it will be through an author who cares at least as much about character as plot and style. At least, if anything, reading Gibson did restore my craving for more of whatever it is I usually like to read!

*Actually I have a total soft spot for Lara Croft, but that’s really neither here nor there.

Unrelated side notes: I feel really terrible about the fact that I have so far COMPLETELY failed to participate in A Year of Feminist Classics this year. Also, I’m leaving for Kenya tomorrow (!) and have similarly failed to complete my prepared reading list of Kenyan authors and histories. I have also pre-written 0 updates for while I’m out of the country and am like 15 posts behind what I’m currently reading. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiigghhhh!!!!

Fail, fail, fail! BUT I AM NOT GIVING UP. I will do my best to get back on track when I return home later this month, so please bear with me :/ I know you are all very nice and don’t really mind at all anyway and there’s no pressure and for that I thank you. But still!

Written by Emily Jane

August 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Novels

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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz

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Confederates in the Attic reads like a series of character sketches of the most eccentric people Horwitz met while following his most enduring childhood interest, the American civil war, on a road trip through the country’s Southern states. While he runs the risk of using the most extreme examples of civil war mania to represent Southern values and culture in general, I do think the “characters” he portrays allow him the opportunity he so desires as someone very much an Outsider: to explore the myriad of ways in which the Civil War remains central to Southern identity construction.

After all, the interests of hardcore re-enactors–and the satisfaction they get from keeping the old fight alive–differs greatly in feel and practice from that of women playing Scarlett O’Hara at international tourist destinations, on the one hand, and confederate flag merchandisers and, yes–contemporary Klansmen–on the other. Whether the appeal is nostalgia for what may in hindsight appear “a simpler time”, community-building outside the perceived constraints and perceived banality of modern life, or simply deep-seated prejudice, the Civil War remains an effective language and reference for communicating both shared discontent and longing for camaraderie.

What is still timely about the Civil War, Horwitz is told time and again by those who look upon it in reverence, are issues like states’ rights, Red vs. Blue state lifestyle battles, and remembrance of past family member’s involvement. Of course, there is great irony in the fact that racism and racial inequality is the only part of Civil War culture that is routinely dismissed as outdated by all but the most openly bigoted despite the persistence and intensity of segregation in the present day South (and elsewhere), the contemporary violence of which is so frequently expressed through Civil War racial rhetoric. One of the most interesting of Horwitz’ encounters, I thought, was with an all-black elementary school class who provided an important counter-narrative to many of those profiled throughout the book. Though he finds their schooling on the Civil War problematic (though certainly no less so than that of mostly-or-all white children’s classes and religious or heritage groups), it perfectly illustrates his point that Southerners still engage regularly and personally with Civil War issues in a way that most people in Northern, Western, and Eastern don’t feel the need to. Why? Horwitz pinpoints the thing that Southern states share, the thing that feeds this need: the unique sense of defeat and loss from within one’s own homeland which is continually reaffirmed.

My favorite part of the book was learning about the intense hierarchy that exists amongst historical interpreters (or re-enactors). What a difference the make of a pants-button or a thread count can make! The method of salting one’s pork alone, it seems, can distinguish the FARBs (those who care not enough for authenticity) from the Hardcores. I also found his bit about Southern Jews to be fascinating. Humor is Horwitz’s strength, as it helps him keep contentious issues engaging, even when enraging. He is sensitive while trying to accurately represent such opposing world views that, as someone who has only visited the South once and briefly (and greatly enjoyed it), I felt my own negative assumptions both justified and challenged at different points throughout the book. Contradictory feelings upon reading fit, I think, as the flexibility of Civil War culture as applied to today’s South produces its own contradictory social and political tensions.

Perfect for fellow social studies and U.S. history nerds, if a little unstructured at times.

Sidenote: Horwitz was taken on a Hardcore Civil War site visit that was ACTUALLY referred to as a “Civil Wargasm”. I smirked a little inside every time I read that title, which was many times.

Written by Emily Jane

July 22, 2012 at 11:40 pm

So Far From God, by Ana Castillo

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…and so begins another LONG overdue review of a book read months ago :/

I began So Far From God after Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended it to me while discussing the Read and Resist Tucson challenge that Melissa of The Feminist Texican started early this year in protest of Arizona’s ethnic studies bans (yes, this was on the banned books list). She referred to it as something like a pleasant surprise which, happily, I found it to be as well!

So Far From God takes place in a small town in my home state, New Mexico, though the world that Sofi and her four enigmatic daughters inhabits evokes experience I was never privy to as an (atheist, Jewish) Anglo. Theirs is an existence steeped in local and ancestral lore, Catholicism, and magical realism on the most mundane of days. But it is also one that is routinely challenged by industrial development and modernist appeals to progress.

Despite Sofi’s best attempts at raising her daughters safely through adulthood, all four come to untimely, tragic ends. La Loca, so-called because her childhood death and subsequent return from the world of spirits left her mind wandering somewhere between the realms of life and death, falls prey to epileptic fits and terminal illness. Caridad, once beautiful and reckless, is ravaged by la Malogra, a wild, invisible monster. She then trains to become a curandera (healer) and falls in love with another woman on the holy march to Chimayo, where she begins to make a name for herself that travels far and wide throughout the religious community, but leaves her vulnerable. Fe, the most conventional of the sisters, wants only to work and  maintain a comfortable household with her new husband, but falls ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals at the factory that employs her. Esperanza, the oldest, achieves her dream of leaving New Mexico by becoming a reporter and flying overseas to cover conflict in the Middle East…but never returns.

None of these devastating ends comes as a surprise. Instead, they are regularly foreshadowed in the exaggerated way of upcoming soap opera events. What’s surprising is the way in which Castillo manages an easy, light-hearted tone throughout such sad happenings and keeps the reader hopeful that somehow, things aren’t all as bad as they seem. That hope finds place in the girls’ mother, Sofi, who is repeatedly devastated by the loss of her daughters, but who is not left destitute by them. In fact, she seems to swallow all their strengths as they depart her world, and she becomes a courageous, capable community organizer who works with friends, family, and strangers around her to change what isn’t right, adapting to a world in flux when necessary and holding steadfast to tried and true traditions when possible.

Castillo is a joy to read. Spanish and English flow together in a way that feels natural even to readers who know little-to-no Spanish at all. Her characters are interesting and strange but knowable, her narrative is creatively spun, and she plays carefully but easily with a number of cultures and ideas. A pleasant surprise, indeed.

Written by Emily Jane

July 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Oh. My. Gosh. LIFE SOMETIMES, RIGHT?! A few months ago I warned you that I would likely be very busy with my last semester of undergrad, and other things, and that posting would be slow. Little did you (or I!) know, I was actually about to disappear from this blog for months. MONTHS.

I guess the good news about not having been able to do hardly any just-for-fun reading lately is that there’s not very much to catch up on. :/ On the other hand, it’s been really difficult to revitalize my drive to read, which makes me sad. It’s all over now, but I am intellectually exhausted and want to do nothing but watch X-Files (good thing it’s streaming on Netflix!). So, I’m working on that. In the meantime, though, I will try to remember what I can about the last book I did finish, which also happened to be GREAT and will surely remain one of my favorites this year.

Wizard of the Crow takes place in the fictional country of Aburiria, a totalitarian state in which the people suffer under a dictator who squanders all the nation’s resources on a modern Tower of Babel, a structure tall enough to unite The Ruler with the ultimate power and omniscience of God. But he is challenged by a growing number of subversives lead by the unlikely pair of the elusive mystic Kamiti and the practical, confrontational Nyawira. Posing together as The Wizard of the Crow, they begin to diagnose the corrupt government officials and businessmen that seek their help in secrecy with internalized racism and destructive envy of white male power. Finally their reputation leads them straight to The Ruler himself, who is yet to identify them as the source of the political humiliation he is beginning to suffer at the hands of unruly queuing peasants and, worst of all, non-submissive women, in front of his Global Bank acquaintances and the international community at large.

Though the book deals with heavy themes, it is written with a strong sense of humor and never felt anything but lively despite its great length (though I will admit the last hundred pages–of about seven hundred–were a bit pedantic!). I loved his use of magical realism, his dialogue, and especially his female characters. I especially love that they led the resistance by exaggeratedly fulfilling their traditional roles and, later, by establishing an all female people’s court to try and punish perpetrators of domestic violence, revealing links between “the personal and the political”. This kind of satire may seem familiar, but this book feels far from tired.

Though I know little of Kenya’s history, I think it’s fair to read what I do know into this novel. But having just finished a course on the DRC and Rwanda, it seems equally possible to read a bit of post-colonial Africa in general into it. Towards the end, Thiong’o plays explicitly with pan-Africanism, which I think validates that reading. I look forward to learning more about Kenya’a specific past with this book in mind.

Inventive, ranging, and assertive…this chunkster comes highly recommended.

This book counts toward both The Africa Challenge and my own private Kenya project, on which I have fallen far, far behind. Ditto A Year of Feminist Classics, which I plan to catch up on in good time. 

Written by Emily Jane

May 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg

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In the late 1840’s, Kate (age 12) and Maggie (age 15) excitedly reported that they heard “rappings”, or knocking sounds, emanating invisibly from the walls of their Hydesville, NY home. Not only did the origins of the mysterious sounds defy all scientific explanation, but they seemed to reflect a knowing, responsive consciousness. Tales of the Fox girls’ communication with spirits spread rapidly, and American spiritualism was born. For the rest of their lives as mediums, the Fox sisters spearheaded a movement that would forever change popular ideas about death and the afterlife in both America and Europe, and toured as celebrities in an era when most women were strictly limited to the dependent, domestic sphere of the home.

The Fox sisters pronounced themselves spirit mediums at a time of drastic change in mainstream American life caused by increased mobility, urbanization, religious developments, and problems of social in/equality. These changes prompted Americans to grapple with the following questions (p. 6-7):

Shall we pack our worldly goods and journey westward? Or leave the farm behind and head for the city?

Are our struggles moving us upward on the social ladder, or have our risks only pushed us down a notch?

Is our society advancing toward utopian perfection? Or under new pressures…is it descending into chaos?

Those of us who are women–will we stay placidly at home or step out into the street, into the labor force, into public life?

Those of us who are enslaved–will we remain in bondage or march forward into freedom?

…am I bound for heaven or hell?

…what control do we have over any of our destinations?

Weisberg notes that the Calvinist concept of pre-destination was too unforgiving to satisfy the needs of those so troubled by uncertainty, and a discursive space was opened up wherein “the girls’ appeal surely stemmed in part from the ways they embodied–and intuited–their culture’s anxieties and ambitions” (p. 7). It is little wonder, then, that spiritualism was received most warmly in reformist circles by those already working to stretch the boundaries of society.

Though immensely popular, Kate, Maggie, and their older sister Leah were not without detractors. Indeed, they were subject to a number of invasive investigations, including public searches of their near naked bodies by councils of scientists determined to uncover the secrets of the “fraudulent females” (p. 81). To this day, the truth about the origins of the sisters’ rappings remains unknown; Weisberg engages debate about the authenticity of the events that occurred around the Fox sisters as well as possible explanations for them, but doesn’t dwell on them too much, which I liked. Those lingering questions are intriguing, but there’s so much more to this story worth looking at.

What was most interesting to me were the ways in which the Fox sisters were almost solely responsible for creating a new, public occupation for women: that of the medium. Mediumship was provocative; it took place in close quarters amongst mixed company under dim lights and required hand holding and whispering. It was sexy, intimidating, and provided women an independence through public demonstrations that they might not have gained had they been considered the primary actors in spirit communication and not only “passive media”, constitutionally weak and at the mercy of pushy ghosts. They troubled normative gender ideologies without completely dispelling them. The public was generally ambivalent about them, revering them at times and lambasting them for impropriety at others.

Impressively, Weisberg is able to make sense of the tensions found in mid-19th-century America at large without losing sight of the sisters themselves. As they grew into older, they each experienced the kinds of tragic breakdowns that we’ve sadly come to expect from people who’ve been followed so closely by the media and featured regularly in tabloids throughout the whole of their childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthood. The lively, charismatic sisters eventually fell into conflict with each other (mostly Kate and Maggie with Leah, the significantly older sister who managed their careers before becoming a medium herself and was widely thought to be manipulative and exploitative), succumbed to alcoholism, and died in poverty. Despite the limited knowledge we have of them as individuals, Weisberg highlights what she can of their personalities, lending them strength as complex and memorable people.

Weisberg has written a wonderful biography that manages to tell a story not only about the Fox sisters, who are incredibly fascinating on their own, but also a nation struggling to re-invent itself. The text is littered with fun trivia, too, including the origins of the term “con man” and speculations about the reason for Benjamin Franklin’s status as the most commonly manifested spirit amongst American mediums. This book was the first read for my 19th century spiritualism project, and it was a great place to start. Weisberg provided me with compelling human stories through which to understand the larger cultural shifts that helped the spread of spiritualism and provided an excellent platform, I think, from which to continue my exploration of spiritualism; particularly its gender implications in both the American and European contexts. Recommended for those interested in 19th century America, gender, celebrity, and/or the possibilities of spirit communication!

Written by Emily Jane

March 22, 2012 at 7:59 pm