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The Return, by Silvia Kwon

June 13, 2015

The Return, by Silvia Kwon.  Sydney, NSW : Hachette Australia, 2014.

4 stars

Australian Women Writers

A wise, emotionally gripping novel about a rural Australian woman trying to keep peace between her husband, a traumatized veteran of World War II, and her son, who marries a Japanese woman. A novel of love, hatred, and forgiveness.

Like many women, Merna is at the center of her family, trying to hold it together. Frank, her husband, had returned from World War II devastated by what he had suffered. The war changed him into a silent, hostile man, unwilling to let go of his hatred of the Japanese. He could not forgive his son for working in Japan and marrying Miko, a Japanese woman. When the young couple returns to the family farm and small fictional town nearby, they face hatred on all sides. Merna understands the hatred, but she struggles to transcend it. Her tolerance for her husband’s anger diminishes, and she grows to love Miko, but her path is difficult.

Silvia Kwon was born in Korea and came to Australia with her parents as a child. She has worked in the publishing industry and this is her first novel. She brings rare insight into her characters. Merna, in particular, is a complex and conflicted character, often unable to reconcile those around her. Kwon is able to depict hatred and prejudice as understandable, but not justifiable, and to show the small steps that can begin to undermine it.

I strongly recommend The Return to all readers seeking to understand the widespread anger and prejudice we see in today’s world and to move beyond the wars and trauma that many have experienced

MOVING ON

June 11, 2015

My husband, Don, and I are moving. As much as we love our pink granite cliffs, we have to admit that we need to be somewhere we can get adequate medical care.  We are moving to a community in the green hills of Tennessee.

You can expect my blogging to be erratic and my reviews to continue to be skimpy, as they have been in recent weeks, until we get settled again. I do have a few books that I have promised to review and some that are too good not to write about, but life is chaotic right now.

Seed Sovereignty, Food Security: Women in the Vanguard, by Vandana Shiva.

May 31, 2015

Seed Sovereignty, Food Security; Women in the Vanguard, by Vandana Shiva.  North Melbourne, Victoria : Spinifex, [2015].

4 stars

An anthology of articles by experts and activists opposing industrialized agriculture and GMO’s and advocating the preservation of biodiversity in seeds and locally sustainable food.

Vandana Shiva is an Indian woman at the forefront of international environmental movements, particularly in the movement to ensure that all people have access to healthy, nutritious food. She knows the science about food production, and she has worked in the field assisting those who are fighting at the local level to preserve traditional, small-scale farming. In her new book from Spinifex Press, she brings together an impressive international array of individual activists and scientists who share her convictions. As Shiva notes, it is women who have lead this fight because women are the ones who typically are the ones growing and preparing food.

In the introduction to the book, Shiva lays out her arguments against industrial approaches to food production. She explicitly attacks the false claims which supporters of GMO foods have sought to spread. Evidence supports her belief that the claims that GMO foods are better, cheap, and result in more food are simply false. The use of GMOs and single crop agriculture drain the land of nutrients and require toxic chemicals. Food grown in this way has fewer nutrients and presents more dangers. For her, GMO foods and the control of food production by an international elite threatens us all. In the other articles in the book, a variety of others expand on her arguments and describe their own efforts to retain the right to grow and eat their own food. I found the articles by activists around the global to be especially interesting and powerful.

I strongly recommend Seed Sovereignty, Food Security to a wide group of readers, especially to those who have not taken the threat to our food supply seriously. This is a important statement of why we all should care about the future of agriculture.

Absent, by Betool Khedairi.

May 29, 2015

Absent, by Betool Khedairi.  Random House Trade Paperbacks (2007), Paperback, 240 pages.

4 stars

A fascinating story about a young woman and the residents of her apartment house in Baghdad as they seek ways to survive in the destruction of the 1990s.

Dalal is an orphan who lives with her childless aunt and uncle. Unusually, her uncle chooses to go by the name “father of the absent one,” and absence is a theme in the novel. As the author notes, the Iraqi people have all too often been absent from western discussions of their country and the wars through which they have suffered.

At first Absent seems to be simply a loosely structured account of Dalal, her aunt and uncle–and the others in their apartment building–all of whom are struggling to survive the dictatorship, the economic embargo, and the bombings. They are a wonderful mix of people from various parts of Iraqi society; an herbalist/fortune teller, a nurse, a hairdresser, and Dalal’s aunt, who brings in money from sewing and her uncle who becomes a beekeeper. But quietly a plot develops out of the chaos of their lives.

Betool Khedairi was born in Bagdad, the child of an Iraqi man and a Scottish mother. She has lived much of her life in Amman, Jordan, and traveled widely. Her sense of how little those whose nations invaded Iraq knew about its people was the impetus for her writing this book. She is a skilled and impressive writer able to create intriguing characters and involve them in a complex, and surprising plot.

I strongly recommend this book to all who enjoy a fresh new literary voice.

The Flower in the Skull, by Kathleen Alcala.

May 26, 2015

The Flower in the Skull, by Kathleen Alcala.  San Diego : Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Indigenous Reading Challenge

4 stars

An insightful account of an Indigenous woman, driven out of the mountains of Mexico and, bereft of family and home, walking to a very different life in Tucson in the late 1800s.

Concha belonged to an Opata village deep in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.  Growing up, her life centered on her mother and the special room where the women gathered to weave and sing.  Life was hard but grounded in the family and the countryside. When Mexican settlers and soldiers endangered the village, the people left and Concha got separated from her family.  Alone she walked all the way to Tucson, where she worked as a domestic servant, experiencing good times and bad. She was raped and gave birth to a daughter, Rosa, who recounts her own story and tells of her mother’s later years and death. The last section of the book is narrated by their descendant, a young woman with troubles of her own, who comes to Tucson and discovers traces of their lives.

Unlike many Indigenous stories, The Flower in the Skull focuses less on traditions, cultural conflict and domination and more on the loneliness and heartbreak of a woman separated from her family and from the place she knew as home. For a time she worked for a family that treated her well, but she never acclimated to the city and the noisy trains. As her daughter explains, her mother’s world centered on the women’s weaving room in the village, even after she had been gone for years. Rosa is not sure about whether or not to believe her mother’s stories, but sees their value anyway.  She describes how her mother became a different person when she told stories of her home village. Those story were “a part of her in a way Tucson would never be.”  Rosa realizes that her mother had not only lost her family, but all that grounded her.  To her mother, coming to Tucson was “the edge of the known world.”  Living there, she was “teetering the edge of a precipice, and she would never be comfortable living there.  The stories of this place was not her stories, the gods—Papago, Catholic or Protestant–were not her gods.”   Her god could not hear her over the noise of Tucson.  Yet her daughter, Rosa was comfortable being considered a Mexican.

Kathleen Alcada is the daughter of parents who came to the United States from Mexico. I read this book because I had been very impressed with her Spirits of the Ordinary, and I was not disappointed. References to some characters in the Alcada’s previous book appear in minor ways in The Flower in the Skull, but there is no need to have read it first to enjoy this one.   When writing about Indigenous peoples, Alcada’s language takes on a dignity and reserve that suits her subjects, a pattern I have sensed in some Indigenous African writers. She has thoroughly researched the history of northern Mexico and the American southwest, not simply as an author, but as the descendant of those who lived there, giving her words a particular depth. She writes historical fiction as stories we need to know about our shared past, not simply a fancy setting for a book. When she turns to the story of a contemporary granddaughter at the end of the book, I thought her book lost much of its force.

When I think about Indigenous people in my country and continent, I never quite know how to consider people from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America more generally. Over the centuries, ethnic lines have blurred and most Hispanic people are the descendants of Indigenous, European, and often African people. In the United States, all those with darker skins have been viewed as inferior. Distinctions have not always been made between Mexican and Indigenous people, as Concha’s daughter explains.  Alcada’s work clearly differentiates between the two and then shows how the distinction has been lost.

The Flower in the Skull is a fine book, enjoyable and informative. I recommend it highly, not simply to those interested in Mexican and Hispanic American topics, but to all interested to the variety of Indigenous narratives. In addition, this book recognizes the importance of a sense of place or homeland, something too often lost in today’s mobile world.

 

Longbourn, by Jo Baker.

May 24, 2015

Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, The Servants’ Story, by Jo Baker.  Vintage (2014), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 331 pages

4 stars

A masterful retelling if a classic story from the perspective of the servants, not the Bennets.

This is not simply another spinoff on Jane Austin’s novel. It is a brilliant display of what it means to see events from the viewpoints of those who are usually ignored and invisible. In Longbourn, the Bennets are there but they are not the focus of the novel. They provide the backdrop, the structure, of the narrative. In the foreground are the Bennets’ servants; Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook and her old and ailing husband and the housemaids, Sarah and Polly, both orphans taken from the Poor House. Polly is still a child, Sarah, now a young woman the age of Elizabeth Bennet, is the central character. The novel opens with the arrival of additional servant, James, a strange secretive young man who joins the household as footman. And the footman that the Bingleys bring adds new possibilties to the story. Although the servants experience love and pain just like their “betters,” their chores shape their lives very differently. Reading this book, we learn the details of the usually invisible work of cleaning, sewing and cooking, of providing for much of what we, like, the Bennets, take for granted. As Jo Baker explains, “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.” And we learn of the ongoing frustration and vulnerability of those destined to perform this work.

Yet Longbourn is not a grim or angry book. Baker relates her narrative is a brisk enjoyable fashion. Her critique of social structure which undergrids her book is often expressed in calm, but cutting wit. The book’s plot is full of tension and unexpected twists. The result is a delightful novel that is sheer fun to read.

Jo Baker is an English writer with several excellent books to her credit. I have recently enjoyed and reviewed Undertow, The Telling, and my favorite, The Mermaid’s Daughter. Baker writes well about adventure and war, but I prefer her more domestic writing. In Longbourn, I was less impressed with James’s story before he joined the family, than I was with the actual depiction of the servants’ lives.

I enthusiastically recommend Longbourn to all readers, especially to those who like to explore a diversity of perspectives.

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.

May 22, 2015

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015.

4 stars

A superb history, well-written and documented, providing global context and personal stories and everything in between about those who have come to the United States from Asia.

Erika Lee is a fine historian with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkley and a Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota. Even to those of us somewhat familiar with the narrative she tells, she brings fresh information and insights. Her writing is clear and compelling, as well as well-documented. She pulls us into immigration history with the stories of individuals, including her own grandparents who emigrated from China.

What is most unique about The Making of Asian America is perhaps the way in which it is a global account. We learn not simply a story of immigrants in America, but who people were before they came and what complex international factors lay behind their immigration. We see their relationships to those who remained behind and the ways in which actions differed by gender.

As Lee establishes, Asians in America represent a startling variety of people coming from at least 23 distinct groups. They also differ in when, why, and how they came and in whether or not they accepted their place in the unequal society of the United States. And yet some generalizations about them are possible, in part because Americans defined them as a common race, backward, inferior, and submissive. Their race denied them the right to citizenship; although some Asian families had been in the United States for generations, they were still considered outsiders. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, Asians have entered the country more freely and enjoyed more rights. Many of them remain global citizens, cherishing their multinational identities.

Asians started to arrive in North and South America as slaves and seamen during the years of Spanish Conquest in the 1500s and 1600s. The Spaniards were headquartered in Manila, and ships crossed and recrossed the Pacific, sometimes leaving Chinese and Philippines in what would become the United States. As the British Empire grew, laborers from India were brought to the Caribbean. Along with Chinese “coolies” they labored in the sugar fields. Some came to Louisiana. As plantations spread across Hawaii, various Asians came temporarily or permanently and it eventually became a stepping stone to mainland America.

The major wave of Asian migration to America occurred in the 1800s, despite strident efforts to contain or prohibit it. These were years of vigilantism against Asians when laws were passed to restrict their migration and land ownership. Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island’s purpose was to turn back those who would enter from Asia. Some migrants did settle and have small scale success, but even these gains seemed to threaten settlers of European descent.   Lee adds many unfamiliar stories that fill in our picture of Asian migration, such as those of Koreans escaping the Japanese who had conquered their nation. She tells of people of the Philippines who resisted U.S. military takeover to become a possession with the right to migrate to the mainland. Eventually they were granted postponed independence so that migration could be controlled.   My favorite section was about the Chinese’s migration into the United States across the Rio Grande from Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol was initially created to stop their arrival.

World War II was a turning point in migration history. While Japanese were sent to concentration camps, some older prohibitions against Asians broke down fist for Asian wives of U.S. service men and then others. In 1965, new national immigration laws were passed, and increasingly Asians came to the United States. Some of them were held up as “model migrants” but others continued to be harassed and rejected, especially after 9-11. Lee views this more recent migration as more global than earlier ones, with some immigrants arriving after living in several countries and some maintaining close ties to their former homes. She suggests that these “transnational” individuals challenge us to rethink what it means to be an American.

Although I am not an expert in migration history, I researched and wrote a book, Asian Texans, which dealt with those who have come to this state. It would have been a better book, if Lee’s survey had been available. I am simply thrilled to see it available now. I recommend it to a wide readership. It is the kind of book that can reshape how we understand who we are.

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