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Refuge: A Novel, by Merilyn Simonds.

July 22, 2018

Refuge A Novel

Refuge: A Novel, by Merilyn Simonds.  EWC, 2018.

4 stars

A story narrated by a Canadian woman in her nineties whose memories surface when she is visited by a young Burmese woman who claims to be the granddaughter of her lost son.

Merilyn Simmonds was born in Winnipeg and raised in Brazil. Returning to Ontario, she became a freelance journalist and has published several non-fiction books.  She has also publish in a variety of types of writing, including novels. Her Convict Lover, a book of creative nonfiction, gained her literary fame. She and her husband continue to have homes in Ontario and Mexico.

Cassie, the narrator of Refuge, is 96 years old and continues to live alone in her own refuge, a tiny cabin on an island which her father had once owned.  She values her self-sufficiency and is reluctant to meet Nang, who arrives claiming to be the daughter of Cassie’s son whom Cassie believes had been killed in World War II. Nang wants help gain refugee status in Canada.  Cassie is bored, curious, and unwilling to believe the girl is really a relative.  But with the help of Sean, a neighbor, the women slowly interact.  Cassie’s memories and belongings spill out confirming, but never proving, their connection.  As she relates in her stories, Cassie has lived a far from conventional life in Mexico and New York City as well as Canada.  She also reveals her deep love for her son, jealousy for her sister with whom he sometimes lived, and her guilt that he had not returned to her.

The text of the book moves back and forth among the times and places Cassie has lived and worked and loved.  The past is there, ready to be revisited.  But the retelling of her adventures brings peace, not from words or thoughts, but from simple tasks performed alongside Nang and Sean.

I strongly recommend Refuge to readers ready to slow down and care.

Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary, by Robert Cohen.

July 20, 2018

Howard Zinn's Southern Diary

Howard Zinn’s Southern Diary: Sit-ins, Civil Rights, and Black Women’s Student Activism, by Robert Cohen. University of Georgia Press, 2018.

Forthcoming September 2018

4 stars

The diary that the historian kept when he was supporting the young women of Spelman College in Atlanta in 1963, when the Civil rights Movement was begining.upplemented by other sources on the events of this critical time.

Howard Zinn is  best known for his People’s History of the United States which revealed about the people of the United States whose lives and resistance had been left out of accepted history.  The book first appeared in 1980 and was an accessible example of what was happening in the American historical profession and a popularization of a more inclusive approach to history.

In the 1960s, Zinn was a young history professor at Spelman College, a school noted for the cultured young African American ladies who attended there.  In the spring of 1963, the Civil Right Movement was just beginning to spread.  Zinn, a Jewish man from New York, became a supporter, catalyst, and advisor for Spelman students caught up in the early sit-ins in Atlanta.  The college administration strongly opposed his activities and by the end of the semester fired him for radicalizing students.  Events of that spring were significant in the rise of the movement, and Zinn’s diary provides a contemporary, inside view of the events and debates.

Robert Cohen teaches at New York University and has written several books about twentieth century radicalism in the U.S., especially the student protests of the 1960s.  In presenting Zinn’s diary, he has assembled abundant background materials that reflect its context and significance.  These include oral histories of Spelman students and others who worked closely with Zinn, such as Alice Walker and Marion Wright Edelman.  His book provides insight not only on Zinn and people associated with Spelman, but also into how and why protests develop and succeed.

Zinn’s diary and the related materials in this book will be especially valuable to teachers and researchers who focus on the Civil Rights Movement.  Non-academic readers will be rewarded with insight into the era and the debates swirling around it.  I recommend it to both groups.

All the Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy.

July 17, 2018

All the Lives We Never Lived
All the Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy.  Atria Books, 2018.

4 stars

An historical novel about young boy and his mismatched parents whose lives are changed by two actual historical figures, art lovers who visit India and Bali in the 1930s and 1940.

Anuradha Roy is an Indian woman who has published several well-received novels based in her home country.  Her relatives knew some of the characters in this book and other significant Indian Leaders. She is not Arundhati Roy, a more famous woman author/activist from India.

The narrative in All the Lives We Never Lived is structured around a retired horticulturist who has returned to the small town in India where he grew up. Myshkin is a reclusive, dreamy man who had spent his life being invisible.  In retirement, memories of his childhood engage him.  His father was a rigid idealist,devoted to political austerity who expects everyone else to live up to his demands.  His mother was an artist, a flamboyant, deeply emotional woman, encouraged by her own father to be open and curious.  When he was nine, Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete, who were collectors of various types of “native” arts, visited his sleepy town.  When they left, his mother left with them.  She settles in Bali and becomes a painter. Myshkin was shattered and confused.  World War II errupts in India and Bali, leaving much unresolved.  As the book progresses, Myshkin relives what his mother’s disappearance meant to him.

My experience with this book is an example of why I continue to write reviews.  As I read it, I was not impressed.  In fact was bored by details that seemed to have little meaning.  Afterward, I was pushed to figure out what had happened in the book. Even the title took on significance.  Reviewing forces me to think about what I have read.  This book rewarded me for having made the effort.

I recommend this book for readers who are willing to think about what a novel can say about dreams and losses, and memories.

Women of the Blue and Gray, by Marianne Monson.

July 15, 2018

Women of the Blue and Gray
Women of the Blue and Gray, by Marianne Monson.  Shadow Mountain, 2018.


4 stars

The well-told narrative of the experiences and achievements of women on both sides during the American Civil War.  These stories are too often ignored in accounts about the war

Marianne Monson teaches creative writing at Portland Community College as well as at private workshops and retreats.  She also acts as an “Artist in Resident” in school classrooms, helping children discover their creativity.  Her degrees are from Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published ten books for adults and children, many of them historical fiction or creative non-fiction, as well as articles and blogs for various audiences.  Several of her books focus on women and children on the American frontier.

For all that has been written about the American Civil War, most of us know little about what it meant for women on either side or about their contributions to the conflict.  We tend to think that “war” is what men do while the women are safe at home. This book reveals how wrong that image actually is.  As Monson reveals, women fought on battlefields alongside husbands or while posing as men.  They did the work of feeding, clothing, and nursing, keeping men able to fight and helping them die.  They were spy and consultants.  Doing what we usually consider as “men’s work,” they provided for families and communities.  In addition, there are stories of women in the middle states were shifting battle lines meant that soldiers showed up on their doorsteps.  As we see, the guerilla warfare that characterized the Civil War makes women central actors in the fighting and devastation.

Manson has done an excellent job of capturing the variety of women caught up in the Civil War. She maintains a fair balance of Confederates and Yankees, never showing favoritism or bias.  Instead of only telling the stories of white women, she includes significant stories about Native American women and African American women.  The black women’s stories are particularly meaningful since some were slaves, some were free, and some had run away to refugee camps seeking their own freedom and that of their children (An interesting parallel with the current stories of women escaping violence in Latin America.)

Manson has done a thorough job of researching these stories and organizing a great deal of information into a coherent book.  She documents where she found anecdotes, but does not try to analyze. Instead she tells an engaging narrative, accessible to older children and adults.

I strongly recommend this book for all readers who need to understand what war means to women as well as men.

Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang.

July 13, 2018

Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home
Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, by Sisonke Msimang. 2017.  World Editions

Forthcoming in the U.S. in 2018.

5 stars–FAVORITE

An insightful, well-crafted narrative by the daughter of South African Freedom fighters considers the idealism of her childhood spent in exile and the frustration of her return as an adult to her homeland during its post-Mandala years

The mere trajectory of Sisonke Msimang’s life is enough reason to read her book, but there is much more.  She is also a bright, sensitive observer of race, gender, equality and justice in the political and social worlds through which she moves.  At the same, she is a fiercely introspective woman willing to expose her own flaws and mistakes as she grows from a curious little girl into a women who falls in love and begins a career and family of her own.  And she is a fine writer, skillful enough to shape her multifaceted life into a coherent story of exile and home.

Msimang’s earliest memories are of her family’s home in Zambia, a home in a conventional neighborhood, a place where young, energetic Freedom Fighters gathered provided Sisonke with role models of the woman she dreamed of becoming.  Then, the family moved on to Kenya, Canada, back to Kenya, always moving on just when she felt acclimated.  She attended MacAlester College in the United States, where she made friends and sampled romance. Just as she was graduating, apartheid was ending in South Africa.  Returning there, she and others were euphoric in their sense of victory.  She began her career in human rights and justice organizations and fell in love with a man she met there, despite the fact he was a white Australian.  They married, had two children and tried to settle down.  She was awarded a Yale Greenberg World Fellowship which described why she was chosen.

She has global, regional and national experience, having worked for the United Nations as well as within the civil society sector and in private philanthropy. Until November 2012, she led George Soros’ philanthropic efforts based in Johannesburg as the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA). [Msimang] now works on human rights and Democracy with the Sonke Gender Justice Network, which has been a leading advocate of working with men and boys in promoting gender equality and is the author of a weekly column at the Daily Maverick, a leading South African online news daily.

But South Africa was still struggling.  Instead of becoming a land of equality and justice, hatred and violence flourished.  Distrubingly Msimang found herself and her family as part of the new African elite, apart from the majority of Africans.  Instead of taking another administrative position, she became a consultant and a writer.  She writes regularly for major English and U.S. journals and online.  She and her husband now live alternately in South Africa and Australia.

Obviously I am impressed with Msimang, but what struck me most was her depiction of post-apartheid South Africa, and her own recognition that she herself was part of its new elite.  The dream of harmony and equality never came true, and various groups were left with complaints about the new order.  Whites were not happy to step back from the domination of blacks that they had long enjoyed.  Many blacks continued to hate and resist both whites and the rising middle class/elites which included returning freedom fighters.  No one felt security and trust.  Although I have read other books about post-colonial countries, I found Msimang’s narrative the most nuanced.  She gave me new understanding of global dynamics and even of the hatred and violence we are experiencing in post-Obama America.

Msimang also shows us how these tensions play out at a very personal level.  She tells how a nanny for her toddlers made it possible for her to have a career, but the two woman simply had different lives and different priorities.  Msimang had to face that for all her dreams of equality, she was simply the boss who put the safety of her children above all else.  Including this incident in the book offers a nice balance with other books that highlight the perspective of domestic servants.

I believe Always Another Country is an exceptional book.  I will be urging everyone I know to read it.  I look  forward to discussing it with my book group.

Red Tea, by Meg Mezeske.

July 10, 2018

Red Tea
Red Tea, by Meg Mezeske.  City Owl, 2018.

4 stars

An enjoyable mystery, set in a high school in Japan and featuring a young woman who is an exchange teacher from the United States.

Like Jordan, the main character in Red Tea, Meg Mezeske is a young American woman who spent a year teaching in a high school in rural Japan.   Although not autobiographical, Mezeske’s experiences provided her with the experiences and knowledge to create her novel.

When Jordan arrives at the Japanese school, rumors are swirling about the deaths of students.  She quickly gets involved with detective work to identify the killer, and with the police detective leading the investigations.  The plot develops quickly, putting her in danger before the murderer is identified.  Conflicting values around sex and gender are treated calmly and sympathetically.   Characters are distinctly drawn, but they all seemed very young to me.

Red Tea is somewhat like Gina in the Floating World, both featuring young American women coming of age in Japan. (See my review.) The difference between them is sharp, however, reflecting the difference between a conventional high school and the traditional Japanese “floating world” with its deeper sense of fluidity, rejection of responsibility, and shifting identities.  Perhaps young adult readers would be the ones most likely to appreciate Red Tea.  The book is light and well written and I recommend it particularly to young adults.

Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively.

July 5, 2018
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Life in the Garden
Life in the Garden, by Penelope Lively.  Viking, 2018.

4 stars

Sprightly musing about gardens she has known and read about by an 84-year-old English author.

Penelope Lively has had a long career writing novels and other genres with touches of wit and depth.  She is meaningful but never solemn or obtuse.  Her works are not always great, but they are always inventive and fun.  At 84, she has already written novels with central characters that are aging and at least one memoir about the aging process.  She is not about to stop writing. This time her general focus is on gardens and gardening, but she remains attentive to other favorite themes such as literature, memory and time.

Writing about gardens means remembering those she herself has known, starting with the details of the one she knew as a child in Cairo and continuing through the tiny one she still supervises.  Along the way we get bits of times and places she has lived and the people who have mattered to her.  Because she has always been steeped in literature, she gives us bits of literary gardens she has known and sampling from decades of gardening manual philosophies.  In other hands, it is hard to image a book on these topics, but because she is Penelope Lively, she continues to charm.

I recommend this book particularly to those who have loved gardens and for readers over 60 who can only dream of being like her when they reach their eighties.


“To garden is to elide past, present, and future; it is a defiance of time.”