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Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson.

October 27, 2014

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson.  Toronto : Knopf Canada : Distributed by Random House of Canada, 2000.

An evocative novel by an Indigenous Canadian woman about growing up and making sense of life and tragedy along the Pacific coastal waters.

Eden Robinson was born among the Haisla people in Kitamaat Village, on waterways of central British Columbia. As an adult, she has returned there to write and for the setting of Monkey Beach. The first Haisla to become a well-regarded novelist, she blends Haisla beliefs and traditions with contemporary problems in this book.

The central figure in Monkey Beach is Lisa, a young adult woman living in Kitamaat Village. As the book opens, her younger brother and the fishing boat on which he was working have gone missing. Waiting for news about him, Lisa sinks into memory of their childhood, taking readers inside her extended family and community. She remembers individuals who have shaped her and grieves again about those who have died. Considering her own adolescence, she tries to understand her own and  other’s actions. Restless with waiting, Lisa takes the family boat out on the nearby waterways to Monkey Beach, a place whose specialness she has shared with both her brother and her grandmother. But she finds danger there.

Monkey Beach immerses readers in a world which is both old and new. The people of Kitamaat Village continue traditional practices at the same time they try to cope with modern problems. Lisa’s family eats traditional foods and travel deeply into the waters and mountains on fishing expeditions.  Robinson notes the negative impact of whites on the region, and some of the book’s most troubled characters have been shaped by time spent in boarding schools. The focus, however, is not on the native/settler tensions, but on the extended Haisla community and the interior lives of the characters.

Ghosts, sasquatches, and an army of crows move in and out of the book. Lisa has a strange “little man with red hair” who gives of personal warnings. Her grandmother nurtures Lisa’s ability to relate to the supernatural, sharing practices and rituals with her. She warns Lisa of the dangerous nature of her gifts. Other family members, however, scoff at their spiritual experiences. What Lisa experiences are particular images, not the fantasy or magical realism of other cultures. Regarding her description of such experiences, Robinson herself has expressed her hesitancy at writing down the oral rituals of her tradition choosing respectfully to omit and change details.

The splendid landscape of the Pacific Northwest is also fundamental to the novel. Robinson gives readers the mountains and waters, the light and the wind.   Fishing trips along the bays and inlets are described in realistic detail. The beauty and the isolation of Haisla region make Monkey Beach unique.  Her obvious love of her homeland leaves me with the desire to visit.

I strongly urge others to read this fine book for its beauty and its depiction on Indigenous life in the today’s world.

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka.

October 24, 2014

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

A warm family tale about Polish peasants which braids together stories about surviving Nazi and Soviet occupations and about living in post-Communist Krakow.

Brigid Pasulka, the daughter of Polish immigrants, grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. After college, she visited Krakow and stayed a year. Traveling and living in Europe, she returned frequently and came to appreciate its mix of the old and the new Poland. A Long, Long Time Ago grew out of her time there.

In a series of alternating chapters, Pasulka tells two stories gradually revealing their overlap. One narrative feels almost like a folktale, describing the love between Pigeon and Anielica and the supportive resilient community around them. When World War II begins people are hurt and killed and families are separated. War does not only affected soldiers, but also civilians. As soon as the Nazis are defeated, the Soviets arrive with their own style of oppression. The couple and other relatives obey demands that they go to Krakow to help create a better Poland. The city, however, provides both joy and pain. Having been a leader in the partisan forces, Pigeon disappears and Anielica returns to the village to raise their daughter.

The other narrative is told in first-person by the couple’s granddaughter, Beeta, or as she is nicknamed, Baba Yaga. Her story is grittier and more internal than theirs. She has comes to Krakow to live with relatives after the death of her grandmother who had raised her in the village. Feeling lonely and adrift, she works as a barmaid and domestic servant; she lives with her great-aunt and cousin, abrasive individuals with problems of their own. Capitalism has arrived in Poland, and Krakow is a messy and confusing city, where Baba Yoga sees an empty future.  But family still matters, insuring that she eventually finds a place for herself.

Pasulka is a master storyteller, able to create the different tones of the stories and the resilience shared by the characters in both. She uses wry humor to balance the painfulness of her tales. As the stories blend, their intensity builds to an ending that I at least had not expected. Her writing has justifiably garnered awards.

I recommend A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True to all who enjoy excellent storytelling with a unique viewpoint. And to anyone interested in recent Polish and European history.

Gabi, A Girl In Pieces, by Isabel Quintero.

October 20, 2014

Gabi, A Girl In Pieces, by Isabel Quintero. Cinco Puntos Press (Forthcoming Fall 2014).

A fresh, intelligent account of a Latina’s senior year in high school with all its pain and joy.

Gabriela Hernandez is a bright, feisty young woman who copes with the stresses in her life by writing in her journal.  This novel is structured as what she writes in her last year of high school.  Some of her stresses are ones almost universal among teenagers, like identity, sexuality and self-acceptance. Other issues she faces, like rape, abortion, and gay-bashing, also plague many other American high school students today. An additional problem for Gabi is that her family is barely functional. Her father is a meth addict, and her mother pressures her to be a nice, traditional Mexican girl. Yet as she writes, Gabi faces what she is feeling and finds ways to love and find joy in her life. She gains confidence and a boyfriend through her poetry class and learns that love and anger can co-exist. Gabi may grieve, rage, and eat too much,  she remains upbeat and caring.  She is able to put the pieces of her life together.I loved Gabi with her intensity and her determination to find the words to express what she is doing and feeling.  She has given me a glimpse into how teenagers are coping that made me hopeful for the future.

Gabi is the first novel to be published by Isabel Quintero, a Latina who admits that her subject is much like she and her friends had been as high schoolers. Only she adds, Gabi has more problems and is braver. She describes how a fifth-grade writing assignment and a teacher’s encouraging words set her on the path of writing.  “It was the first time I realized that writing gave me a voice.  On paper I could control a world that felt out of control.”  Creating Gabi’s distinctive voice, Qunitero helps others like her character also get a bit of control over their unstable worlds. She continues to work on various writing-related projects, and I look forward to more books from her.  Although Gabi loves her Mexican heritage, especially its foods, the book focuses more on her as a teenager than on ethnic problems.

This is a book marketed for young adults. I believe they will find a kindred soul in Gabi and perhaps absorb some of her wisdom.   But you don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy and learn from this book. I strongly recommend it to all those who teach or work with high school and college students. And I encourage older readers like myself who worry about the next generation.

I am grateful to have received an ebook version of Gabi from Cinco Puntos Press.  They are a small press “rooted on the U.S. Mexican border” and committed to publishing truly diverse books for adults, young adults, and children.  If you are interested in publications by people of color, check them out. (


Waking Up White, by Debby Irving.

October 17, 2014
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Waking Up White, by Debby Irving.  Elephant Room Press (2014), Paperback, 288 pages.

A valuable autobiographical account of one woman’s realization that her own whiteness was a social category that lies at the core of the privileges and resources of her life.

Debby Irving was born in 1960 and grew up in suburb of Boston, a cocoon of pride, affluence, and whiteness. As a child she learned the virtues of optimism and hard work, and assumed that anyone could succeed if they tried.   In 2009 at 48, a mother and teacher seeking a Master’s degree, she began to be aware of the reality of race structuring her live. Amazed and incensed at what she discovered, she has written this book to encourage others to see that whiteness and white supremacy are invisible realities that we who are white must face and understand.

I knew I needed to read this book when I saw its cover with its picture of little blond-haired girl who very well could have been me. Unlike Irving, I grew up near enough to the South to know African Americans, but the ones I knew were all servants whose duty it was to help care for me. As she points out, each of our paths is unique, but similar in a society that devalues some of its members on the basis of skin color. Like her I had to unlearn much of what I was taught as a child about race.

Irving does an excellent job ofexplaining the factual and conceptual basis of race, as they have come to be understood since the 1970s by academics and activists. Race is a category created by human beings which confers benefits on some while making life harder for others. Racism is structural violence, often invisible in our society, that continues to define whites as superior to people of color. Racism is not something evil individuals think and voice, but a hierarchy that rewards those who are white. Because of racism even people, like Irving and myself, wanting to “help”others, often fail to treat them as equals.  She points out, correctly, that attempts to separate race and class or to prioritize one over the other are useless because our class standing itself is heavily influenced by our racial identity. For Irving, discovering the reality of race helped her put down traits like perfectionism and repression of feelings that she had learned from her family.

I strongly recommend this book for individuals and groups uneasy and curious about race or for those who don’t understand how their efforts to “help” blacks backfire. Those who have been attentive to racial issues will find little new in her book.

But, cynically, in today’s world, I wonder if the audience for a book like this is still there. The views she tells of having held about white superiority are ones I hear regularly in the news today. The ability of some African Americans to have opportunities and authority once exclusively the possession of whites seems to be threatening to those who fear the loss of their own status. President Obama’s blackness seems to have made it fashionable in some circles to express hatred of blacks.   Can we so easily end the structural violence that continues to hold so many blacks in hopelessness? Is the ability to write a book like this yet another privilege of whiteness?

When I finished this book, I deliberately turned to one by Nadine Gordimer who provides a more complicated and chilling view of racism and the complexities of struggles to end it. Review to come.

Leela’s Book, by Alice Albinina.

October 13, 2014

Leela’s Book, by Alice Albinia. W. W. Norton & Company (2013), Paperback, 448 pages.


A biting, satirical novel by a white Englishwoman about contemporary Indian families whose relationships reflect the complexities of the Mahabharata.

Leela is an Indian woman who had married a businessman twenty years earlier and migrated with him to the United States. He had promised never to inquire into her past or take her back to India, and yet as the book opens, he has become wealthy, and they are returning to Delhi to attend his niece’s wedding. The bride’s father is an extreme Hindu would-be politician. The groom’s father is an academic determined to disprove Hindu mythology as well as a critical part of Leela’s past. Plots thicken with other scandalous revelations about the enormous cast of characters. In the midst of this complexity, Ganesh, the elephant-faced Hindu god, enters the debate over whether or not he transcribed the classic epic, the Mahabharata. He claims to have followed the re-incarnations to Leela, her sister, and others in the narrative through the centuries down to the present.

Frankly, I had trouble with this book. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I had more familiarity with the Mahabharata. But the problem went deeper. I simply disliked all the characters. Maybe the author intended me to dislike them.    Leela’s Book pushed me to think about why I found it distasteful. I strongly believe that anyone can write well about any subject if they are willing to research it with sensitivity and respect.  A review of the book in The Guardian identified it as a satire on contemporary India which may explain its negativity. Alice Albinia has studied Asian history and culture, but she exhibits little connection to her characters or respect for their traditions.  To me Leela’s Book seemed more like an intellectual game than a novel.  I read globally to learn about and empathize with characters whose lives are unlike my own, not to make fun of them.

I was unsure whether or not to enter my review of this book in the South Asian Women Writers challenge. The author is from England, but according to her biological information, she has lived in India. I decided to include it because of its topic, as others in the challenge might hear of it and be interested.


The Sweetness of Tears, by Nafisa Haji.

October 11, 2014

The Sweetness of Tears, by Nafisa Haji. William Morrow Paperbacks (2011), Edition: Original, Paperback, 400 pages.


A touching contemporary novel about Muslim/Christian acceptance, about the human damage caused by the War on Terror, and about grief as more healing than anger.

Jo March, named for the heroine of Little Women, grew up in a family of Christians, missionaries and televangelists.  When she learned of a Muslim from Pakistan hidden in her family tree, she decided to study Urdu and Arabic in college and become a missionary. Believing she could help her country after the 9/11 bombing, she joined a private security firm  working in Iraq. She was appalled by the behavior she witnessed. Her twin brother served in the Marines in Iraq and was also traumatized by the experience. To heal her own and her brother’s pain, Jo set out to find forgotten relatives in the Middle East and South Asia.

Nafisa Haji is the daughter of Pakistani parents who came to the United States before she was born. She continues to have close ties to relatives in Pakistan. She herself is Sufi, active in inter-religious work.  The Sweetness of Tears is a tender, hopeful book rather than a literary or deep one. Her characters are good people, not aggressive ones, with sorrows they learn to release and share.  The plot is engaging, if somewhat unlikely.  Haji is able to bring to life different groups of people, each with their own flaws and customs, and describe their interactions.  Initially I was afraid I would find the Christianity of Jo’s overpowering, but I did not.  Jo and Chris do not experience religious doubt or confusion after their wartime experiences, but their wise grandmother strongly challenges the smug self-righteousness of other family members.  The book is honest and open about what it was like for Americans to serve in the Iraq War and suffer trauma afterward.  Yet this is a hopeful book where trauma can be healed.  Sharing tears is a positive experience.

The Muslims in The Sweetness of Tears are Shia, not the more familiar Sunni. Shia believes that a descendent of Mohammad, his friends, and family were killed in a struggle over the succession for the leader of Islam. They still mourn his loss with annual rituals of grief and pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran. Haji describes these effectively in her novel. Knowing little about the actual practices of the Shia, I was moved by her account.  Haji is also clearly aware of the ways that Islam, like other religions, is full of practices that belittle and harm women. She does not claim that women should leave their faith, however. She includes warm accounts of Muslim women worshiping apart from men.

I recommend this novel to readers interested in Shia practices among Muslims and those who enjoy hopeful books.  Those looking for an enjoyable, but relevant narrative will like this book, perhaps more than I did. I look forward to reading her other book, The Writing on My Forehead, a multi-generational story about Muslim Americans.

Fields of Blood, by Karen Armstrong.

October 9, 2014

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong.  Knopf (2014), Hardcover, 528 pages

A valuable global survey from prehistory to the present of the complex relationship between religion and violence by a well-regarded religious historian.

Karen Armstrong is an accomplished historian who has written a number of books relating and comparing different world religious traditions. Her scholarship is excellent, and she aims her writings at a broad audience of readers rather than at the academic community. She believes that everyone needs to understand the histories of the major religions of today in order to deal with conflicts realistically. In her latest book, she traces how religion and violence have always been connected in human history, but their interactions are varied and complex, leaving scars we cannot afford to ignore.

According to Armstrong, no religion is itself inherently violent. Religions have been used to support and justified violence, but those same religions also inspire calls to lessen and end violence. Armstrong explores not only the phenomenon of killing and war, but also the structural violence which she believes makes organized civilized life possible. Details vary from place to place, but the pattern reoccurs.

Drawing on evidence from ancient societies in the Middle East, India, and China, and later Europe and America, Armstrong presents extensive evidence for her thesis. She shows how religion was embedded in all of human life, legitimizing the violence of killing animals and other humans.  As civilizations began to organize and specialize, structural violence also emerged as necessary to provide for a few to lead and enjoy luxuries. The shift to agricultural life did not mean a kinder and gentler way of living, in her interpretation. The growth of towns and agricultural surpluses meant that some people had to be forced to work to insure that others could have luxuries. The walls, towers, and pyramids of antiquity could not have been built without the coercion of laborers.

Armstrong moves from the discussion of ancient cultures to the development of monotheism in the Middle East.  Although she herself comes from a Christian background, she applies the the same scholarly approach that she uses elsewhere to the pre-Biblical and Biblical history. Providing context about when and why the books of the Bible were written allows her to tell a more complete story than the one I learned in Sunday School. Her treatment of the history of Islam is similarly inclusive.  The rise of Christianity in Europe and the formation of extensive Muslim empires lead Armstrong into discussion of how the Crusades introduced the hostile attitudes still present between Europeans and Muslims. Underneath the violence, however, were continuing attempts to both justify killing and to denounce it. Armstrong also places the Crusades in the context of tensions in Europe between the power of the Church and that of emerging national leaders, a pattern that would continue into the Reformation.

For Armstrong, the entirety of life in the pre-modern world was interwoven with spirituality until the Reformation and Enlightenment in Europe gradually separated politics and religion. This separation was literally unthinkable earlier. Although usually hailed as progress, Armstrong points out problems with the emergence of a more secular, privatized viewpoint.  Leaders demanded their subjects’ loyalties in order to chip away at the hold of religious institutions in their lives. Religious commitment and fervor did not disappear because people still felt the need for spiritual grounding and meaning.  The dualities of “us and them” were sharpened into national and ethnic divisions. Religion came to be viewed as a private relationship to God instead of a potentially universal ethic of treating all others with grace and mercy.

Industrialism sharpened the division between religion and the rest of life and spread European domination.  Colonization depended on violence toward indigenous people everywhere. Defining others as barely human was a means of justifying harsh treatment of them.  Religion in the New World took a different pattern than in Europe. The diversity of Christians in the new American nation lead to the creation of a secular state. The elite who lead the struggle for independence were Deists, but a more emotional Evangelicalism was widespread. The variety of evangelical Protestant groups stressed religion as private belief, rather than an ethic of the common good.

Armstrong’s section on the impact of British colonization on religions in India was particularly valuable for me. She points out that while religious tolerance was growing back in England, the colonizers used religion as their major tool in dividing and defining India. Lacking understanding of Indian religions, their conceptualization created problems. When the British arrived, they separated people into two categories; Muslims and all non-Muslims, whom they labeled as Hindu despite the presence of many other religious traditions. Access to British power and resources flowed through these imposed religious hierarchies. Lines between religious groups hardened as people competed for British resources and became more militant. Previously, much of India had been under the rule of Muslims who had never tried to force their religion on their subjects.  While Muslim and Hindu leaders fought amongst themselves, Indian people tended to tolerate and blend their varied religions. Sufism was the main type of Islam, and some Muslim leaders made real efforts to foster religious tolerance and blending.

In the Middle East, colonization was later and even more disruptive. As in India, religious divisions were created that have intensified over time. Armstrong follows the stories in detail, showing little sympathy for either the inept and unthinking violence by Western leaders or the violence of leaders who claim to be Muslim but do not follow its basic tenets. Although this part of the story was somewhat familiar, Armstrong provided important details I had not understood.  I was particularly interested in her discussion of how little Islamic extremists today know about, or follow, traditional Islam.  I was previously unaware of the diversity within Islam or that Islam traditionally prohibited the killing of civilians.

Trying to summarize this book, I see I have said little about the topics on which it focuses; religion and violence. In part that is because Armstrong herself provides such extensive economic and political context. She does not see religion or violence as separate from the society from which they come. I find the breadth of her thinking exciting. I trust the subtlety and precision of her thinking, while accepting that her narrative is only one of many that could be told.

Writing a sweeping overview, like Fields of Blood, is a challenging task, and I applaud Armstrong’s ability to create such a book. Her grasp of detail is enormous, and she weaves various stories into one assessable narrative. As always with such an overview, there will be those who will disagree with her account in its entirety or with particular parts of it.  Fundamentalists in all religions will be upset by how she weaves economic and political context into the narrative.  Yet I found this book to be extremely valuable.  I have been learning separate regional stories, but this book helped me see how the pieces were and are connected.  If we are to have the global histories that some have advocated, we need well-researched and well-considered books like this one.

Karen Armstrong has made another important contribution to our general understanding of global society. Her focus on the roots of religion and violence are particularly relevant today.  I strongly recommend Fields of Blood to a wide variety of readers who seek to understand both history and the present from a global perspective.  In fact, I recommend all her books to anyone interested in world religion.


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