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The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami.

September 26, 2016

The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami.   Ballantine Books (2002), Edition: Reprint, 359 pages

5 stars

A delightful novel set in south India about a large family who become heroes of their own lives when an orphaned Canadian granddaughter comes to live with them.

Anita Rau Badami was born in India in 1961.  She grew up and attended college there.  Emigrating to Canada in 1991, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Calgary where she wrote her first novel Tamarind Woman as her thesis.  This is her second novel.  She now lives in Vancouver, which she enjoys, but the noisy bustle of India remains dear to her.  She is particularly interested in the gap between the cultures she has known in India and Canada and with the impact of changes within India.

A Hero’s Walk is set in an imaginary town in South India near Madras and centers on a once-wealthy family living in a crumbling ancestral mansion.  The head of the family is Sripathi Rao, a middle-aged man disappointed with the loss of his own ambitions and those of his mother.  His life has come to focus of his sense of duty and appearances, and he often cuts out those who intrude on his narrow life.  His wife, Nirmala, is a sweet, passive woman, unwilling to shake up those around her by pursuing what she believes is right.  Sripathi’s mother, Ammayya, is in her eighties and full of anger at her own losses.  Putti is Sripathi’s sister. She is also full of anger about the emptiness of her own life, primarily because the failure of Sripathi and Ammayya to approve a husband for her although she is in her thirties.  Also living in the home is Arun, the grown son of Sripathi and Nirmala, who spends his time protesting the corruption of Indian life and resisting his father’s nagging him to get a job.

As the book opens, Maya, the couple’s daughter, has been killed along with her husband in far off Vancouver.  Despite having broken off with Maya over her marriage to a Canadian nine years earlier, the family must take her orphaned daughter, Nandana, age 7.  The child is so traumatized by her parents’ deaths and by the strangeness of India that she refuses to speak for months.  Her entrance, however, contributes to various insights and experiences that echo through the whole household.

Badami is an excellent writer, very attuned to the hidden messages that swirl around the large family. Writing in third person, she focuses on the individual family members, revealing their often contradictory thoughts and feeling.  Her description of street scenes in India are vivid and illuminating.  The family at the center of the book are Hindu, but not a pure version of the faith.  Children go to a Roman Catholic School, and superstitions are interwoven in their troubled thoughts.  The grandmother constantly flares up because the others no longer practice the caste system and do not protect her from exposure to people who belong to the lowest classes.

In the book’s “Reader’s Guide,” Badami explains the title and theme. She describes the dramatic dance-form she knew as a child in India.  Each character had a distinctive style of walking.  The “hero’s walk” was an identifying mark.  Badami sees each of her characters, all of them ordinary Indians, finding ways of being heroes.  All, that is except the grandmother, who remains committed to her long-lost caste privileges.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and was particularly pleased to be immersed in a generally Hindu way of life.  All of the characters were believable mixes of laudable qualities and infuriating ones.  Although the books contains loss and pain,  the characters move beyond their earlier narrowness as the plot progresses.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to readers, especially those interested in India, Hinduism, or family dynamics.  With its variety of characters and issues,  I think it would a fine choice for a book group.

Stripped to the Bone, by Ghada Alatrash.

September 22, 2016

Stripped to the Bone, by Ghada Alatrash.  Ottawa, CA: Petra Press, 2016.  176 pages.

2 stars

A raw collection of poetry and prose honoring women of Syria: those remaining in their country and those who have emigrated to Canada and the United States.

Ghada Alatrash is a poet, a student of Arabic poetry, and a translator. She was born in Syria and migrated to the United States, and then to Canada where she now lives.  Her father was a well-known Syrian diplomat to a variety of countries and represented his country in the United Nations.  He fostered his daughter’s love of Arabic poetry and encouraged her to give readings where she presented poetry in its original language and then in English.  In recent years, she has gained a following on the internet as part of a new wave of Syrian poets finding a voice there.

Stripped to the Bone is a collection of her own poetry and prose along with those of other Arabic poets. The book’s loose structure follows that typically found online.  Perhaps other, younger readers will find it more satisfying than I did.  The narratives of seven Syrian women form the backbone of the book.  They range from women dreaming of love, to women being tortured in prison, and those who have been forced to leave their homeland.  Alatrash tells their stories in lush expressive language.  At times her words seem to gush more than I liked, but that characteristic may reflect her native Syrian style.  She expresses a modern tolerance for a gay couple and a woman who chooses a long-term relationship with a man instead of marry him.  But she frequently uses terms like “essential femininity” that have been used to restrict women over time.

While I admire her intent in seeking to “amplify the voices of the silenced in our humanity,” I found the book unsatisfying.

A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi.

September 16, 2016

A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi.  William Morrow (2016), 432 pages

5 stars — Favorite

A wise and suspense-filled story by an Afghan American woman about a village woman accused of murdering her abusive husband and the struggle of her and those around her for justice and dignity.

Nadia Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion.  She herself was born and raised in New York and New Jersey and didn’t visit the country until 2002.  Her extended family, however, kept the Afghan culture alive for her, regaling her with stories and characters which have made their way into her books.   She graduated from Brandis University with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology and then earned a medical degree.  Now she lives in Maryland with her husband and four children and practices pediatric medicine.  She has written two previous novels about Afghanistan, both of which have been well received.

At the center of A House without Windows, is Zeba, an ordinary wife and mother in an Afghan village, who was found in her courtyard with her abusive husband dead and herself covered with blood.  She seemed to be the obvious murderer, but she is unwilling to explain what had happened.  Yusuf, a young lawyer assigned to defend her, had moved to America with his family as a child, but had returned to Afghanistan with the very American idea that an individual could make a difference.  However, he is frustrated by her unwillingness to talk.  In jail, Zeba became part of a vibrant group of women prisoners.  Bits of the larger stories about her and her family slowly emerge, and  surprises complicate what had seemed like a simple story.

Zeba and the other women are portrayed as strong and creative,  having survived a host of troubles of their own.  I found it a nice touch that many of the prison guards and administrators were women.  Yusuf and some of the other men are also positively presented, but the women in the book agree that men at best incompetent and at worse cruel.  Zeba’s mother explains to her that her brother and the lawyer both want to help her, “but they are men, and man can only see what they can hold in their hands…. It’s not their fault; it’s how they were designed.”  Theirs is a society where a woman’s testimony has only half the value of a man’s.  The jail is full of women arrested for acts vaguely defined as “sex outside of marriage” which can mean anything from talking back to a male authority or leaving her father’s home.  No wonder they all believe “ “What a burden it is to be born a woman.”

The complicated relationship of Zeba and her mother is another theme that is well developed in the novel.  Zeba’s mother was a powerful, controlling woman who got what she wanted, even using magic to do so.  Zeba “believed her to be someone larger than life and invincible.  That’s what made it acceptable to push her away.  Her mother was not frail or needy.  She was an island of autonomy even when the world around here was at war.”  Although Zeba had distanced herself from her mother, when she is in danger of being executed mother and daughter try to connect only to face the limits of their power.   “Why were she and her mother like two survivors floating on rafts, reaching out for each other only to be bounced apart by wave after tumultuous wave?”

A House without Windows is an excellent book, well-written and full of suspense and surprises.   Hashimi is the kind of writer who excels at compressing complicated situations into a few sentences.  She has written a provocative book and one that may annoy male readers.  But her book is an important one that pushes us to consider the impact of abusive relationships.  I recommend it highly.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.

September 13, 2016

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

5 stars — FAVORITE

A moving historical novel by a Ghanaian American woman which follows the descendants of two African women from the 1700s down to the present with powerful descriptions of ordinary incidents of African and African American peoples.

With imagination, knowledge and skill, Gyasi has opened up the black history of Africa and the United States to all her readers.  Her characters are robust and complex, neither heroes or victims but life-like individuals with whom we can relate.  The focus is on them, with the legal and political events structuring their lives always in the background.  For me, this is the best kind of historical fiction, fleshing out what we can know with thoughtful visions of what might have been.

Effia and Esi were daughters of the same mother, but never knew each other. One married a British soldier in the infamous Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana; her descendants remained in Africa.  Her sister was taken as a slave and confined in the dungeons of the Castle. Her descendants were slaves in the fields of North America and today’s African Americans.  Each chapter follows someone in the ancestral chain, moving through generations and alternating between Africa and America.  The book reads like a loosely connected collection of short stories, rather like Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.  Themes of struggle and survival run through all the chapters.

Yaa Gyasi is a young woman born in Ghana whose family came to Alabama when she was nine.  She was raised and educated in the United States, attending Stanford and the Iowa International Writing Program.  She is a talented writer and fine storyteller; certainly she is an author to watch.  Her stories enmesh us in African lives, the early slave trade and its escalation, Africans drawn into the sale of slaves and the confusion of those born of British and African parents. We see the ongoing wars between Fante and Asante and the British after the formal end of the slave trade and Africans’ attempts to be independent of European control.  In America, we read of Africans in the “Hell’ of slavery in cotton fields and coal mines, the dangers for free blacks in cities, and the slavery of drugs in the ghettos.

In an interview, Gyasi explains how changes in colonialism and slavery over time are central to her book.

I wanted to talk about how the moments that we are dealing with in the present didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They are connected to every single moment in time that came before, tracing back to this huge thing in the 18th century.

Gyasi’s achievement is somewhat outside of western definitions of literary excellence.  The novel has little unity and the theme of “homegoing” is not stressed.   At times I became so engrossed in a particular story that I was annoyed to be pulled across the Atlantic and placed in yet another set of people and events.  The stories, however, were so powerful that I quit caring.  As she says of one of her characters who became a teacher, Gyasi is storyteller of her people “in the tradition of village dancers and storytellers,” passing on what she has learned about their shared past.

This book is an excellent choice for any reader interested in what Africans and African American have experienced in the past and the situations that continue to shape and restrict them.  Those of us who are white particularly need to read this book. I recommend at as strongly as possible to all readers.

 

 

Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang.

September 7, 2016

Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang.  William Morrow Paperbacks, 400 pages. Forthcoming January 2017.

3 stars

A simply told novel about the coming of age of a girl in Shanghai in the early twentieth century in which she is aided through her difficulties by a spirit Fox.

Janie Chang was born in Taiwan, and has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand and New Zealand.  She now lives in Vancouver, Canada.  Her first novel, Three Souls, was published in 2014 (See my review).  Dragon Springs Road will be available next January.

This novel begins in 1908, when Jialing is left alone by her mother in the abandoned dwelling where they have lived.  She does not know her father, only that she is of mixed race, a condition for which dismissed and harassed.  A new family takes her in as a bond servant, and she is able to get an education in a mission school.  Finding a way to support herself after the family who had housed her is almost impossible, but she has made friends who are willing to help her.  She also begins a search for the mother who had left her.  A spirit fox assists her along the way and provides her with wonderful dreams of the Chinese countryside.

In some ways, Dragon Springs Road is a better and more enjoyable book than Chang’s first novel.  The problems I had with Three Souls have been corrected.  The spirit Fox, who can appear as a fox or a woman, is graceful and appealing.  Although the facts of prostitution are openly present, sexuality is not overdone.  At times the book seems to be written for a young adult audience.  The book makes no attempt to be great literature, but I recommend it for those looking for a casual novel set in China.

 

Prostitution Narratives, Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist, eds.

August 31, 2016

Prostitution Narratives: Stories in Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 2016.  238 pages.

4 stars

A powerful collection of stories written by women from various countries who survived their time in prostitution and are willing to talk about its violence, drug usage, and overall dehumanizing impact.

Australians Caroline Norma and Melinda Reist, a scholar and an activist, both have expertise about sexual violence.  They know what prostitution looks like for those involved and have collected twenty stories and three articles to present their viewpoint and expose the seamy underside of the prostitution industry in developed nations.. Their purpose is to share stories that sharply contradict the rosy accounts of prostitution as ordinary work: stories spread by those who profit from it.   In deliberate imitation of the American slave narratives, Norma and Reist believe that if the public faces the reality of prostitution, the practice can be ended.   Reading their book, I see their point.  I gained a troubling new awareness of the damage it does not only to the women who rent the use of their bodies, but also to the larger society in which prostitution is allowed to be practiced.  I credit Prostitution Narratives for pushing me to think about prostitution differently.

Previously I had not realized the extent to which prostitution, like rape, is about violence.  Women are used as objects, not simply for sexuality, but to absorb the physical abuse that angry men think they are entitled to use against them.  Even if men do not hit or bite or choke, the female body is not meant to withstand penetration by a dozen or more men per night.  I also had not considered the psychological cost of repeated sex with men who do not value women.  As the stories repeatedly asserted, the way for woman to endure being a prostitute is to distance herself from what is happening to her body.  Legal or illegal drugs may help her, but they take a toll on her, compounding the damage from sex itself.  In addition, once caught up in prostitution it is very difficult to get out psychologically or practically.

Debates about prostitution and possible ways to end it allow all of us to distance ourselves into thinking about the practice as essentially harmless.  Reading the stories of women who have lived through it changes that immediately.  Even if we have no reliable statistics about the numbers of women who have been harmed, identifying with the victims gives us a seldom considered perspective and raises questions about why it is allowed even as an illegal, but tolerated practice.

After reading Prostitution Narratives, I began to consider the various ways in which prostitution is integral to how we as a society think.  Those of us in “free” societies can be attracted to the libertarian view that men are free and entitled to do what they have the money to do.  Men, perhaps, but not women.  Prostitution exhibits the problem with that view.  Nowhere else is entitlement of men over women taken to the extreme of his ability to buy time alone with a woman to abuse and harm her.  Even boxing, proposed as a parallel example, is regulated to establish some measure of equality between the combatants.

Prostitution has long existed, of course, as a means for powerful men to exercise their dominance over those most powerless.  Today the practice has been democratized, offering all men that privilege.  Some prostitutes, like those working for the “DC Madam”, have created individual solutions to lessen the abuse through the wealth and visibility of the men who come to them.  But as we know from other groups seeking paths out of oppression, success for a few does not guarantee survival of the whole group

Proponents of prostitution try to normalize its practices, emphasizing the happy prostitutes and describing it as “sex work.”  They claim that to attack it is to deny women their “autonomy.” But, like much else in our capitalist world, being a prostitute is hardly a free choice.  Proponents offer the hope that if prostitution were decriminalized the abuses, which they admit exist, could be regulated or negotiated away.  As the book points out, in parts of Australia which have experimented with decriminalization, brothels are still brothels.

In their book Norma and Reist support the Nordic Model for dealing with prostitution.  In it men who use prostitutes would be arrested and punished but the actual prostitutes would not.  At least this would represent a move away from the idea that the women are to blame for “offering” themselves, and that they deserve what they get.  But I am unsure that any legal measures would suffice, unless we as societies stop assuming that male domination is their birthright and women, some women at least, are disposable.

I didn’t mean to express the rage that Prostitution Narratives inspired in me rather than focusing on the book itself.  This rage and my new thought about prostitution are perhaps the best evidence of the power of this book.  I strong recommend it to all readers, whatever you think you understand about prostitution.

 

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies.

August 28, 2016

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies.  Crown (2016), 432 pages.

3 stars

A novel about a young English woman who goes to Ceylon in the early twentieth century as the bride of the owner of a massive tea plantation and becomes overwhelmed by the country and her own sense of guilt.

Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia to British parents who returned to England with her when she was child and the country became independent.  She is now a novelist and short-story writer who lives in England and often writes about Southeast Asia.  This is her second novel.

At the center of The Tea Planter’s Wife is Gwen, a young English woman who meets and falls in love with the attractive owner of a tea plantation on his brief visit to England.  They marry, but when she arrives in Ceylon, Gwen finds much that is puzzling and even threatening.  At times her husband is as passionate and loving as ever, but at other times he retreats.  After their son is born, she lives in a haze of guilt while trying to keep a dangerous secret.

The book depicts a small group of the European plantation-owning class with natives of Ceylon pushed to the edges.  Race matters, but the viewpoint is that of the elite.  The plot is unique and interesting, but I found the characters to be somewhat shallow and hard to like, especially in the first half of the book.  The villains are all too obvious. While sexuality is not overly explicit, its descriptions get rather repetitive.  Yet as the novel progresses its main characters face their situation with grace.

Readers wanting an enjoyable, casual novel will probably like it better than I did.