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Fish Tails, by Sheri Tepper.

August 31, 2014

 Fish Tails, by Sheri Tepper.  Harper Voyager (2014), 720 pages.

A lengthy fantasy set in the distant future as Earth is threatened by total flooding.

Sheri Tepper is the author of many  fantasies that I have enjoyed over the years. In her new book, she shows her continuing creativity.   She may, however, have attempted too much this time.

A thousand years after the Big Kill exterminated most dwellers on Earth, a new threat looms. The entire planet is going to be flooded. A few people figure out how to give birth to babies who can live and breathe both air and water thus ensuring that the human race will continue.   A couple sets out with their twin babies who have gills as well as fins and whose legs can be joined to serve as a tail. Their goal is to visit villages showing their infants and introducing villagers to what they will need to do to insure their own children can survive in the future. This is a dangerous task because some people oppose any alteration to the human body, even ear piercing or the loss of a limb, as against God’s will. As the couple journeys, they encounter various responses, some of them life-threatening. They interact with mythical beasts such as griffins, designed by some of survivors of the Big Kill. Their protection includes technologies which appear magical to the uninitiated.

The couple and many of the other characters in the book have complicated back stories. I assume that Tepper has brought together individuals whose stories she has explored in her previous novels. While I have read many of her books, these are not familiar to me. I think the book would be most enjoyed by those who have read all her writings and can appreciate her ability to bring her characters together into one narrative.

At times, Tepper gets carried away with stating what she views as good and bad. While I am sympathetic to many of her values, I found their advocacy often interfered with the narrative. I was also uncomfortable with her division of human beings into those who thought and sought evidence and those who didn’t. Her depiction of village people who were ignorant and violent toward women got boring after a while.

Yet Tepper is still a good storyteller. I recommend this book especially to those who have enjoyed for her earlier books.

Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire.

August 29, 2014

Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire.  Delta (1997), Paperback, 194 pages.

AFRICAN READING

An exquisite book, written as a series of letters by a mother in Zimbabwe to her daughter who is leaving to go to college in America. The book is full of African stories, histories, and cultural values.

J. Nozipo Maraire was born in Rhodesia in 1964, as the violence began that eventually led to the establishment of the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Like Zenzele, she came to the United States for college and has become a neurosurgeon. With precision and beauty, her words express her loyalty to traditional Africa and her effort to sustain her heritage in a very different world.

This book is written, not in Maraire’s voice, but that of her mother, Shiri, known traditionally as “Amai Zenzele” (the mother of Zenzele).   Shiri is an impressive woman, no flat character naming specific traditions which must be observed. Instead, she is a woman who has lived a full life and is aware of aware of its frequent contradictions. She herself embodies both the old and the new. Growing up in a traditional village, she now lives in a city as the educated, well-traveled wife of a successful lawyer. Regular return visits to her village are part of how she balances her own life.  She urges her daughter to work out her own version of living between”the old and new, urban and rural.”  Sharing the stories of how she has developed her own balance is part of her responsibility as a mother.

Respecting and being loyal to her African roots is a major value that Shiri seeks to instill in Zenzele. She is critical of Africans of her own generation who have grabbed unthinkingly at the ways of white colonizers. Eager to insure that their children have the best of everything, she says too many have discarded their African past.

We simply rushed in to secure what the colonists had. We bought their homes, attended their schools, leased their offices, spoke their languages, played their sports, and courted their company. We denied our own culture, relieved to leave our primitive origins far away, in some forgotten village… We ceased to dream, to have our own vision of happiness and success… We have to acknowledge our dual citizenship.

She tells sad stories of those who no longer “remember their own language.”  For her, those who go abroad to study owe a debt to their homeland. These negative stories are balanced by the story of young girl born in America who returns to her father’s African homeland to fight for the people there. Zenzele is expected to live, not just for herself, but for Africa which depends on her.

In going to the lands of others, Zenzele must understand how she will be viewed by them. Both father and mother tell of their own humiliating experiences with Europeans and Americans who view them only as uneducated potential servants.

Unfortunately few Europeans regard Africans as equals. They see us in the indistinct haze of a colonial hangover. Be prepared to meet many who still see Africa as one large amorphous mass: The Dark Continent, a primeval swamp, misty and steaming, inhabited by Neanderthal creatures and cheerful but primitive natives…

To counter these beliefs, Africans must define themselves by beginning to write their own history.

Do not be fooled by the whitewashed apparent objectivity of the ivory tower. Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts.

Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter. So it is with us, too. History is simply the events as seen be a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink.

Shiri has lived through the years of violence in which her people fought against the colonizers. She explains what changed when British Rhodesia became Zimbabwe by reminding her daughter of all the restrictions she had faced under British rule. Although the mother did not engage in fighting, her sister and close friend were among the rebels and tell her their stories. One woman, deeply engaged in the guerilla movement, explained that the final humiliation that drove her to rebel was simply that she wanted a dress – a dress she had admired and worked to buy –  that the storekeeper refused to sell to an African. Summing up the difference independence has meant to her, she states “I inhabited Rhodesia, but in Zimbabwe I lived.”

The last chapters of the book seem to be written somewhat later. Zenzele has departed to America, and her mother is back at her home village, thinking about religion and death. She remembers an incident from Zenzele’s childhood when they had visited an unusual chapel where the paintings contained black angels and a black god. Delighted, Zenzele had pronounced, “This one looks like me! Look at her hair, Mama, even her eyes. I could be an angel, too.” Her mother was also moved to see “an image of God in her own image and not the image of my oppressors.” For the first time she had found the God she had sought, not “the Teutonic God” that the missionaries had insisted she worship.

In writing through the voice of a mother in Zimbabwe, Maraire articulates the horrors of the colonization of countries and of people. Her criticism is both scathing and gentle. She refuses to blame all of Africa’s problems on colonization, but she shows us the insidious ways  colonizers tried to change people of other cultures. Sadly this practice continues today in the ways we continue to fit others into our own definitions of them. Maraire sees to the root of the problem in much the same way as Wole Soyinka does. She presents an alternative which combines loyalty to Africa with action in a modern, international world.

I cannot recommend Zenzele too strongly to readers from both Africa and from colonizing nations.

 

 

Metropolis: A Novel, by Elizabeth Gaffney.

August 25, 2014

Metropolis: A Novel, by Elizabeth Gaffney.   New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.

 

Enjoyable historical fiction about the people living in the underside of New York in the late 1800s.

 

A young man, recently arrived from Germany, quickly gets caught up in the chaos of a city as young and changeable as himself. Changing his name and identity frequently helps him survive until he settles into being Frank Harris, not a German but an Irishman complete with an authentic sounding accent. Unintentionally he becomes part of a highly unusual criminal gang, one that combines its criminal behavior with progressive ideas like profit-sharing and expanded options for women. Frank falls in love with Beatrice, a bright, attractive Irish woman from the gang, only to have her swept away. A stone mason by training, he works in the sewers underneath the city and on the Brooklyn Bridge which towers above it as he slowly makes a place for himself in New York.

 

Elizabeth Gaffney had fun researching and writing this historical novel, and her fun translates into enjoyment for her readers. She combed a variety of sources to collect the factual details which establish what New York and its inhabitants were like in the 1870s, and she has filled her story with delightful bits of information. As she explains in the interview included in the book, she sees her goal as a novelist is to explore the unseen places in our history, “looking in closets and under the counters and down the manhole covers, not eavesdropping on the conversations in the living rooms and parlors.” In doing so, she directs her attention to people not usually included in fiction. She has also created an imaginative, if implausible story, full of suspense and sensitivity. Written in the style of sweeping nineteenth-century novels, its characters face problems still with us today; inequality, discrimination and women’s inability to find adequate health care.

 

I gladly recommend this book to all readers who enjoy learning about the past through fiction.

 

Domestic Manners of Americans, by Frances Trollope.

August 23, 2014

Domestic Manners of Americans, by Frances Trollope. Reprint edition.  HardPress Publishing (2014), Kindle Edition, 332 pages.

 

A reprinted classic by an English woman who visited America around 1830 and wrote a witty and sometimes critical account of what she saw, an account that reminds us of the blindness of priviledge.

 

Frances Trollope was the daughter of a clergyman and the wife of unsuccessful lawyer. She enjoyed the literary and reform circles of London, where she met Fanny Wright, a radical American who planned to open a school where white and black children would be educated together. Trollope and three of her children accompanied Wright on her return to America. The plan was for Trollope to observe the school in Tennessee, but upset by the conditions there, the Trollopes moved on to Cincinnati where they spent the next year.

 

Cincinnati had been founded only thirty years before. For Trollope, it was an example of the best and worst aspects of democratized living. The American West, as seen through Trollope’s eyes, was a place empty of the refinement and pleasant luxuries that she valued. Crudity and lack of respect were rampant problems in her eyes. Chewing tobacco and spitting were intolerable to her. People were working so hard to get ahead that they had no time or interests in culture and intelligent conversations. A poor person could probably obtain a more comfortable life in the city than in England, if only they could avoid the widespread vices of alcohol and tobacco. She was also deeply offended by those whom she considered “beneath her” refusing to show her any deference.

 

When Trollope and her group moved to eastern cities, she found more that pleased her, although spitting and lack of grace continued to annoy her. Staying at a plantation near Washington, D.C., she encountered slavery firsthand. She was quick to point out the unfairness of the institution even for domestic slaves who could be sold away from friends and family and who had no personal hope for freedom in their future. (She never, however, addressed what life was like for the majority of slaves beyond the few who served in their masters’ homes.) She also viewed slavery as contributing to the coarseness of their masters and mistresses.  Trollope saw some advantages to be had from slavery, however. She believed that domestic slaves had better lives than the lower classes of whites, even of the whites who owned slaves themselves. In addition, when she was traveling, she found that slaves were more pleasant and more helpful servants than whites who thought themselves equal to those they assisted.

 

Women and home life were of particular interest to Trollope who made a point of visiting a variety of homes and writing about the practices she observed. Such topics, ignored by male travelers, added to the popularity of her book. At times she shows pity for the lives of the women she describes, but seldom any empathy. Even the women who were wealthy and well-dressed are depicted as sad and often helpless. Trollope believed that a major problem for the upper classes was that women and men were usually separated in their leisure time, leading both groups to stop trying to be pleasing. (She does not seem to notice that the work of women and men was also rigidly divided.)

 

Trollope was not totally negative about America. She made friends and tells of architecture and views that thrilled her. She found much to enjoy, particularly in the abundant natural beauty. She and her children were active explorers, hiking on a regular basis. For her,the Alleghenies viewed in the springtime with all their trees and flowering vines were the most wonderful place she had ever seen. It was the “excessive” democracy in people’s daily life that upset her.

 

Although Trollope had come to America as something of a radical or reformer, her observations here reveal her underlying conservatism. Her book was widely read, both in America and in England, in part because of how critical she was of how political democracy was affecting society. While her views are certainly biased, they remain important for understanding the sense of loss that some conservatives were experiencing. As she points out, praise of democracy is cheap. Actually encouraging others to claim equality has a cost for those who enjoyed privileges in the past. It we believe in equality, we must be willing to give up privileges.

 

This reprint of Trollope’s book includes an introduction by Sara Wheeler which provides useful background information for those unfamiliar with Trollope or conditions in the young American nation.  Frances Trollope was the mother of Anthony Trollope.  I am grateful to have received an ebook to review.

 

 

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Haine.

August 20, 2014

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Haine.  Vintage (2013), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 256 pages.

A humorous, sensitive novel about a Christian woman from the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, who works in a failing hospital and becomes involved with a minor crook.

Mohammed Haine is a Pakistani who grew up in that country and now is an international journalist there. His writing is rowdy, irreverent, and comic as he describes the poverty stricken people of Karachi. His writing conveys a sense that we must laugh over the world he depicts, or we will cry.

Haine’s story centers around Alice Bhatti, a tough young woman with an angry temper and a caring heart. She has much going against her. A Roman Catholic of Hindu descent, she lives and works surrounded by Muslims. Her father is an untouchable who cleans sewers and cures stomach problems with an Islamic ritual. Much of the book revolves around her job at the Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments, a chaotic institution that tries to deny its Catholic identity. She works with a cluster of other unique and colorful individuals. When a baby given up as dead comes to life, she is viewed as a miracle worker. When a “police tout” falls madly in love with her, her life gets even more complicated and violent.

I read this book because I had read that Haine was a male writer able to write sensitively about women. Maybe. Neither his female nor male characters are fully developed, and they all provide comedy rather than depth. He is, however, sensitive to women’s problems and vulnerabilities. Alice’s experiences and those of other women she has seen at the hospital reveal an appreciation of the particular ways in which women suffer. Yet Haine is never grim even in describing the tragedies of their lives.

I recommend this book to readers with a high tolerance for violence and irreverence who like stories about the chaotic lives of slum dwellers. Those who can laugh at human foibles.  This book was fun, but nowhere near as moving as Kathrine Boo’s depiction of similar people in Mumbai in her fine non-fiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. See my review.

The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar.

August 18, 2014

The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar.  Harper Perennial (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 400 pages.

SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS

A powerful novel about an American couple, devastated by the death of their young son, who move to India in hope of a new beginning only to be confronted with the real world that others inhabit.

Thrity Umrigar grew up in India and now lives in the United States. She has a unique talent for probing into her characters’ inner conflicts. Significantly, the characters about whom she writes are often ones involved in bridging cultural and economic gaps: servants and their employers or people living outside their native lands. Like many of us, some are people who want to “do right” by those less fortunate than themselves only to discover the complex, unpleasant motivations underneath their efforts. And they must also deal with the fact that their efforts may do more harm than good to those they set out to help.

In The Weight of Heaven, Frank and Ellie Benford are shattered by the death of their seven-year-old son, Benny. Although they had previously been very close, their attempts to deal with their grief has driven them apart. For no rational reason, Frank blames Ellie for the loss of Benny.

…It was as if a beautiful blue bowl, no, it was as if the world itself had fallen and broken into two halves. Try as he might, Frank couldn’t help but feel toward Ellie how he imagined Adam had felt toward Eve after the Fall—hostile and compassionate. Sad doomed and resentful. Above all, lonely. Above all, unable to regain that lost broken thing.

Seeking to regain their closeness, the couple moves to India where Frank becomes manager of a factory belonging to an international corporation, located in a small town near Mumbai. Ellie had been hopeful about the move but she soon discovers that India itself is not simply a passive setting for them to work out their problems, but a force that would impact their lives.

India, she had found out, was a place of political intrigue and economic corruption, a place occupied with real people with their own incessantly human needs, desires, ambitions, and aspirations, and not the exotic, spiritual, mysterious entity that was a creation of the Western imagination.

Ellie is determined not to let her grief harden into bitterness. “She would not shrivel, not become a snail living in her shell.” She loves India and has a close India woman friend, Nadita, who is very much her peer. Their conversation allow Umrigar to explore cultural differences. For Nadita, the contrasts are not just culture or race, but about who has access to power. Both of their nations are to be blamed for the problems the poor of India face. Meanwhile Frank relates to Indians primarily as a recalcitrant work force he must direct and control. Some of his problems are personal, but his is a global company, taking resources valuable to the resentful people of the community. The only real joy that Frank finds is in his growing friendship with Ramesh, the bright, nine-year-old son of the couple who are live-in servants at the couple’s house. Ramesh’s father, however, jealously determines to keep his son for himself.

After introducing her characters and their plight, Umrigar goes back to tell the story of Ellie and Frank’s romance, of how Beeny’s birth had brought them closer, and of the period around Benny’s death. Then she returns us to India and Frank’s growing obsession with Ramesh. The couple briefly share loving moments such as the festival of Diwali where the dancing “celebrated the paradoxical of joy and restraint, of delirium within a structure.” They were not able to sustain their times of closeness, however. I found the book’s ending surprising and troubling, but given the story, I could not imagine an alternative. Her description of Bombay/Mumbai is particularly moving.

I love Umrigar’s sharp probing writing and her strong descriptions of places and people. I trust her complex descriptions of India and its contradictions.

Bombay. Such a deceptive word, so soft sounding like a sponge cake in your mouth. Even Mumbai, the new name for the city, carries that round softness, so a visitor is unprepared for this giant, bewildering city, which is an assault, a punch in the face.

I am even more impressed by her ability to depict her characters’ internal contradictions.

The Weight of Heaven is a fine book that I recommend heartily to a wide range of readers. This is a darker book than the others of hers that I have read, but I respect her knowledge that life sometimes shows its darker aspects. Like Frank and Ellie, we need to face the fact that bad things happen to good people. While I didn’t find this book as compelling as her two more recent ones, The Space Between Us and The Story Hour (See my reviews), I will continue to read as much of her writing as I can find.

Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka.

August 15, 2014

Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka.  Hill and Wang (1975), Paperback, 76 pages.

 AFRICAN READING

A powerful drama by a major African writer challenging the arrogance of Westerners who claim that others are inferior and must accept “superior” Western values.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka was the first African to be awarded the Noble Prize for Literature. When Kinna mentioned celebration of his eightieth birthday last month, I picked up this book. I was very impressed by Soyinka’s talented writing and principles.

An incident that occurred in the 1940s in an isolated Nigerian village provided the factual framework for this play. The village tradition required that when their king died, his major adviser must “commit death” and be buried with him.   Elesin, the King’s Horseman, has known all his life what his king’s death would mean for him. He is a vigorous man, not wanting to die, but accepting his fate. As the time for his ritual suicide approaches, he laughs with his people who want to give him everything he desires on his last day alive. When he spots an attractive young woman, she is given to him on the night before his death is planned. Drums beat to celebrate both the marriage and the expected funeral.   But the British District Officer hears about what Elesin is doing and determines to stop him. Olunde, Elesin’s eldest son, has been studying medicine in London.  Hearing that the king has died, he returns to his village to bury his father. He eloquently explains the importance of his father’s suicide. He asks why Westerners are determined to stop a man from an honorable act of ritual self-sacrifice when they are so eager to send millions of young men off to die defending their country.   Nothing happens as anyone would have chosen as the play ends, but Soyinka makes clear his commitment to a world where all people’s values and beliefs are respected, especially around matters of life and death.

Soyinka does not claim that the traditional practice of suicide is the “right” one.  What he does is to reveal the horror caused by claims of superiority by those who assume they are the model by which all life must be judged.  His is a scathing account of the intolerance and ignorance of colonizers.  In his “author’s preface”, Soyinka forceful attacks those who have misinterpreted his writings. He chides an American publicist who “unblushingly” wrote a blurb for a novel of his claiming was it was about the “clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African tradition.” He strikes at the heart of colonialism and its claims of universal truth.

His play has resonance today as societies are still at each others’ throats over who gets to say what is “right,” even though colonial governments have been ended.  We still live in a world where a variety of groups claim to know best what others must do.  Soyinka has chosen to tell a story which where the traditional act is freely chosen, but it is an an act which may offend many of those who read or see his play.  The common western assumptions is that because human life is valuable, suicide must be stopped as the British in the play assume.  Soyinka forces us to see the situation differently.  Complications increase when tradition demands that the leaders of a group hurt others, as in genital mutilation or abortion. Often the victims are women.   Elesin is no victim, which is part of why this play is so moving.  I don’t see Soyinka laying down a rule that traditional rituals must always be allowed to continue.  Instead I came away from the play realizing that the imposition of western values may be the worst expression of belief in white supremacy.

I strongly urge others to read this short play. You will moved by it.  And forced to think about your own values.

Have others read this play?  What do you think of it?

 

Just after writing this review, I stumbled across a video about Wole Soyinka which provided me with a larger context for his work.  In it, other African authors praised him highly for his leadership in creating drama that was deeply African.  In particular, they talked about the ways he used African song and dance in plays like Death and the Kings Horseman.  They also told how he had become a hero to other Nigerians with his leadership in their fight against corrupt government and dictatorship.  I also read an article about Soyinka in the Daily Beast written by Chimamanda Adichie.

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