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The Alpine Zen, by Mary Daheim.

March 30, 2015
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The Alpine Zen, by Mary Daheim.  Ballantine Books (2015), Hardcover, 352 pages.

3 stars

The twenty-sixth novel in a mystery series centering on Emma Lord and a small community in the mountains of Washington state.

Mary Daheim is a prolific writer who has written a host of mysteries and historical fiction books. In this series, Daheim focuses on Emma Lord, the editor of the newspaper in the small community of Alpine, Washington. She has recently married Millo Dodge, the town’s sheriff with whom she has a loving but abrasive relationship. He and the rest of the community are essential to Emma’s detective work.  In this novel a weird visitor and an unknown corpse buried at the town dump set off a search that touches others in the community.

The setting for the novel was once a real mining town in the Cascade Mountains, now abandoned except in Daheim’s books.

Unsurprisingly, I found this mystery enjoyable. Daheim is a practiced writer and not striving to be literary. Reading the book without having read those that went before was a problem, however. Unlike those who have been following Emma for years, I couldn’t keep up with all the characters, all with a history of their own. I suspect that those who have read the previous volumes will be the ones who like this one most. Maybe those who enjoy small town murders will enjoy this series if they start on some of the earlier books.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Ballantine Books for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi.

March 28, 2015

Woman at Point Zero, by Nawal El Saadawi.

4 stars

A compelling novel by an Egyptian feminist about women’s suffering and revenge.

Nawal El Saadawi became internationally known in the 1970s as one of the first Arab feminists. She has written extensively and often angrily in both fiction and non-fiction about women in Islam. I had read and been impressed by her factual account of the problems of Arab women, The Hidden Face of Eve, (See my review. ) and wanted to sample her fiction.

 El Saadawi was born in Egypt in 1931. She studied medicine and, for a time in the 1970s, directed national health projects in her country. In this capacity, she worked with women prisoners with “mental affections,” and encountered a compelling woman who was to be executed after having killed a pimp. That story was the inspiration for Woman at Point Zero which was written Arabic in 1975 and published in Lebanon in 1985.

I was swept away with the stark, intense beauty of this novel’s language. El Saadawi is a very accomplished writer who uses a variety of literary devices to convey both the suffering and anger of her central character. Her language is poetic rather than literal; the story she tells often moves from stark realism to dream-like states. Repetition of key phrases in different circumstances heightens their power. I am not sure I share El Saadawi’s version of feminism, but I have high respect for her passion and her ability to tell a moving story. I am not surprised that she is a controversial figure.

Woman at Point Zero opens and concludes with El Saadawi’s subjective responses to Firdaus; her unscientific awe and admiration for a woman she views as exceptional. The body of the book is narrated by Firdaus herself as she tells the story of her life and explains her attitude toward her approaching death. Firdaus begins with the dangers and mistreatment of women in Islamic Africa. As the book develops, her anger and desire for revenge grows. When she killed a pimp, she felt she had found her own freedom. In her own eyes she was being executed not for killing a man but for speaking the truth about how all men are criminals for how they treat women.

As a child Firdaus experienced genital mutilation and sexual abuse. When her parents died she was taken in by an uncle who had abused her. Entry into his westernized life was a revelation to her. She was sent to a boarding school where she was successful and happy for a time. Then she was forced to marry a repulsive old man who beat her. She ran away and began a life of prostitution. She earned enough money to live comfortably, but she was told that she was not “respectable.” Quitting prostitution, she took a secretarial job only to realize that how much better she was treated as a prostitute. Briefly falling in love, she was rejected and painfully returned to her more luxurious life. A pimp tried to bring her under his control. When he pulled out a knife, she grabbed it and killed him. Although proud of her life and deed, she was arrested and was to die the morning after having told her story.

Into this grim plot, El Saadawi weaves details that intensify the book’s emotional impact. Firdaus repeatedly focuses on the eyes of those with whom she interacts. Her mother’s eyes held her up when she was learning to walk.

Two eyes to which I clung with all my might. Two eyes that alone held me up….All I can remember are two rings of intense white around two circles of intense black. I only had to look into them for the white to become whiter and the black blacker, as though sunlight was pouring into them from some magical source neither on earth, nor in the sky…

But afterward, her mother seems to disappear for her. Although physically present, her eyes become dull and dead, no longer “the eyes that held me up when I was on the point of falling. They were not two rings of pure white surrounding two circles of intense black…” Over and over, Firdaus describes seeing eyes just like her mother’s, and over and over, she is abandoned by those she turns to for support.

This is a very sensual book, shockingly so when it was written.  At times, Firdaus could be passive with the men who bought her body, but she also has intense feelings, described with similar language, engaging with women and men.  Her accounts are not physically explicit, but she emotionally articulates how sexuality can move a person beyond the rational world into spiritual or transcendental places.

Deep inside my body I felt a strange trembling. At first it was like pleasure, pleasure akin to pain. It ended with pain, a pain that felt like pleasure….It seemed to go back further than my life, to some day before I was born, like a thing arising out of an ancient wound, in an organ that ceased to be mine, on the body of a woman no longer me.

One of the striking elements of this story is the way in which Firdaus finds prostitution better than marriage for women.

All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows. Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering of women.

By writing in the voice of Firdaus, El Saadawi cannot be said to advocate violence and revenge. Instead, she asks us, male and female, to understand the depth of women’s pain and anger.

Woman at Point Zero is a radical, disturbing book. Intentionally so. I did not empathize with the main character or even the author. But I think it is an important book because it forces us all to face our often buried anger. Perhaps then we can use that anger to better purposes than Firdaus does.

I highly recommend this book of all who dare face the inner violence it displays.

Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

March 25, 2015

Picking Bones from Ash, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  Graywolf Press (2011),  320 pages.

FAVORITE: 5 stars

A spectacular and totally absorbing novel about several generations of Japanese woman seeking to find and reestablish connections with their mothers and their pasts.

“Picking bones from ash” refers to the traditional Japanese practice of carefully removing the bones from ashes, with chop sticks, during special rituals involving cremation and burial. It is critical to one of the subplots in this book. Subtly it is a major theme in the book, symbolizing the search for the piece of one’s mother that a daughter carries forth into her own life. At a more universal level, the image suggests the process of finding and retaining what is true and important from the past for each of us.

Only a couple of decades ago, mothers and daughters were seldom the focus of literature, but now that more women writers have emerged, they are everywhere. Few authors, however, deal with the complexity of those relationships as well as Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Although mothers in her book are hardly sweet and nurturing, Mockett moves beyond the anger to explore daughters’ quest for their mothers.

Satomi is an eleven-year-old girl being raised by her mother, Akiko. No one knows who her father was and the pair are considered outsiders by others in their northern Japanese village. In their isolation they are very close to each other. Akiko believes that the only way a woman can be safe is to be “fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented.” She pushes her daughter to become an exceptional pianist, a goal Satomi shares. The first section of the book is about Satomi’s successful musical education, what changes between the two, and the men whom Satomi attracts as she comes of age. The second section focuses of Rumi, also age eleven and being raised by her father in San Francisco. Although she knows nothing about her mother, we quickly realize that she is Satomi’s daughter. Rumi’s father is an art dealer specializing in ancient Japanese artifacts. He carefully nurtures her ability to tell what real from what is fake. She also learns to “listen” to the art and begins to see a ghost that awakens mysteries. Later sections go back and fill in what happened between sections one and two and then follow Rumi and Satomi into the present. Rumi gradually uncovers her own past and that of her Japanese family. It is a mixed blessing.

It was as my mother had said: the past had complicated my view of my life, not simplified it. And yet, I was right too; my life now had a frame, and was colored with a history that stretched far, far back.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born in the United States, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. In her book, she reveals her rich knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions. She takes us inside the community of collectors specializing in Far Eastern art and artifacts where we examine specific objects of value. We respectfully enter into the Buddhism temples in northern Japan and then observe a very different practice in California. We encounter the Shinto tradition as it continues to be practiced and attend local festivals of demons. Although not a speculative novel, some of the characters are aware of realities most of us never see. As one character explains, “We Japanese are sensitive to our environment in a way that the Western mind cannot be. Our world is alive, populated by ghosts and kami little gods who can inhibit anything from a tree to a rock to a cup.”

Although this is her first novel, Mockett’s writing is smooth and graceful. Her characters are unique but totally believable. Most remarkable is the unusual plot which she has created to reveal the layers and patterns of her characters. Her story is compelling and wise. I second the words of Amy Tan’s blurb for this book. “A book of intelligence and heart. As Mockett reveals, the ghosts of our mothers are always with us.” This novel sent me back to “picking the bones from the ash” of my own relationship with my mother.  As an historian, I believe that this what we must all do with the pasts we inherit.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to all who value excellence in novels; to those who appreciate novels that make us think and feel; and to those wondering about the past.

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird.

March 23, 2015

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird.  Gallery Books (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 301 pages.

3 stars

A sharp, disturbing novel about the gap between a single mother and her adolescent daughter.

Cam and her daughter Aubrey live in suburbia because of the excellent reputation of its school system. Martin, their husband/father, left them sixteen years ago when Aubrey was two.  Since then they stayed near the good schools.  Cam has struggled alone to be the best mother possible, but neither she nor her daughter have ever fit in.  All they had was each other, and when Aubrey enters her senior year their former closeness dissolves.  A crisis develops to reshapes both their lives.

Accomplished author Sarah Bird tells the story of how the pair grew apart by letting each tell her half of the story in alternating chapters. Cam tells what is happening in the present as the date for Aubrey to leave for college approaches, frequently airing her memories of having a happy, loving little girl and the intensity of the involvement she wants in her daughter’s life. Aubrey tells of the events of her senior year, events that she does not share with her mother. Falling in love with a football hero and contact with her long-absent father sharpen her resentment of her mother’s overbearing efforts to keep her close. The structure works, partly because of Bird’s skill and partly because the same emotional issues between mother and daughter appear.

At first I was impressed with Bird’s ability to give voice to both of the mother and the daughter without taking sides. But slowly I became more irritated by Cam and her endless guilt trips and daydreaming about the past. She is so invested in her daughter that she fails to see what was going to happen. As I read I felt a smug self-righteousness about how I had not allowed myself to engage in such smoldering intensity with my own daughters. In the ugly game of who is the best mother, I had won. Soon I was totally on Aubrey’s side against yet another inadequate, oppressive mother.   Then the father/husband, absent from the first half of the book, enters. He isn’t quite a knight on a white horse, but close enough to make me uncomfortable.  He cannot reverse the situation of the mother and daughter, but he seems able to distract Cam from being so obsessive about Aubrey.  I suppose there is nothing wrong with a book about a man helping a woman no longer able to handle her life, but the ending seems trite and worn-out.  And it ignores the fact that mothers and daughters have separation problems whether or not there is a husband/father present; is a situation that deserves more attention in literature that adequately treats mother and daughter equally and explores their changing relationship with complexity.

Sara Bird does many things very well. I am not surprised that the books she writes are popular. Her characters are sharp and funny, and her narrative has enough tension and suspense to make readers keep going. I particularly liked Tyler, Aubrey’s boyfriend, who has his own surprising story. I could have done without so many references to celebrities I didn’t recognize, but my deeper problem was the plot-line that I have heard too many times before.

The Grace Keepers, by Kristy Logan.

March 21, 2015

The Grace Keepers, by Kristy Logan.  Crown (2015), Hardcover, 320 pages.

3 stars

A speculative novel about two young lesbians traveling the ocean separately, looking for each other.

The sea has risen and people are divided.  Landlockers, or clams, remain on the islands, while damplings live on boats cruising the ocean. Hostility between them can be intense, but some individuals manage to move from one category to the other. Callanish is a gracekeeper, living alone on an isolated island where she leads burial services for those killed at sea. Born to a landlocker mother, she keeps her webbed fingers and toes carefully out of sight. North belongs to a circus boat, keeping and performing with her bear. The ringmaster intends for her to marry his arrogant son, unaware she is already pregnant. The two meet briefly and are attracted to each other, but their paths diverge. Each has her own adventures before their final reunion.

Kristy Logan is a young Scottish author, publishing her first book. She is certainly an inventive writer, but I had trouble caring about her characters. The overall story had little intrinsic unity, and I was often unclear about how events were related.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Crown Books for sending me this novel to review.

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall.

March 17, 2015

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall.  Harper (2015), Hardcover, 448 pages.

Favorite 5 stars

A fascinating novel about a woman reintroducing wolves to the Lake District of England at the same time she is pregnant and giving birth herself.

Rachel is a young English woman working to reintroduce wolves in Idaho when she receives an offer to head a wolf project in northern England where she grew up. After an interview visit to the wealthy landowner sponsoring the project and to her dying mother, Rachel accepts the job and returns to the region where she was a child. Her mother’s death does not resolve Rachel’s troubled relationship with her or with the brother whom she hasn’t seen in years. The actual job of reintroducing wolves is a challenging and rewarding task, especially when Rachel unexpectedly realizes she is pregnant. Slowly surrendering her own defenses, she accepts help dealing with both personal challenges and with the wolves under her care.

In this book English author Sarah Hall expertly draws together several themes. The story of the wolves themselves contributes excitement and interest to her book. As always, Hall reveals her deep love of northern England in her rich descriptions of its landscape. The man funding and initiating the wolf reconstruction, the richest and most influential man in England, gives Hall the opportunity to comment cynically about how wealth controls political decision-making in England and elsewhere.

The real core of The Wolf Border for me, however, was Rachel’s development from a loner with multiple defense mechanisms into someone able to share and to receive assistance. Pregnancy and motherhood are critical for Rachel, but not as romanticized, domestic events. Rachel is grounded in her body and experiences everything from the landscape and sexuality to motherhood as physical sensations. She struggles to find ways to care for her infant at the same time as she cares for the wolves. At times she has help from others, but at others the conflicting responsibilities impose dangers and almost overwhelm her. What Hall accomplishes is to envision a new way to look at women’s traditional identities as mothers by portraying Rachel as simultaneously a mother, a lover, and an active participant in the world of wolves and politics.

Hall is a fine writer, and in this book, she succeeds in showing us  a world different than the one we have been taught to inhabit. It is not necessarily a better world, but it is one where we can imagine life outside our usual habits. Subtle similarities between Rachel’s pregnancy and that of the wolves and between Rachel’s defenses and the defenses of the wolf enclosure help Hall hold together the disparate elements in her story.

I have read two other of Hall’s books. I loved Daughter of the North, a speculative narrative about women surviving together in a dyspeptic society, but Haweswater left me cold. The Wolf Border has reestablished Hall as an author I want to read. I strongly recommend this book to other readers, especially those interested in literary depictions of motherhood, but also all those who appreciate books that push them to think and feel in new ways.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Harper Collins for sending me this book for review.

In Time of Siege, by Githa Hariharan.

March 15, 2015

In Time of Siege, by Githa Hariharan.  Pantheon (2003), Edition: First American Edition, 1st Printing, Hardcover, 224 pages.

4 stars

A thoughtful novel of about a mild professor re-engaging with life when a young woman stays in his home and Hindu Fundamentalists attack his historical scholarship.

Shiv Murthy is an unassuming history professor who works in a small department in New Delhi writing and editing correspondence courses. When his wife is on an extended visit with their daughter in Seattle, he is called upon to take Meena, a young college student, into his home while she recuperates from a broken leg. Her presence enlivens and arouses him. In addition, she inspires him to defend himself when fundamentalists challenge the content of a course he has written on Medieval Indian history. He is proud of what he has written about Barasa, a radical reformer and a man some believe was a saint. The “Fundoos,” as Meena calls them, reject what Shiv has written. They call for his lesson to be thrown out and put his job in jeopardy. Their view of the past is nothing more than a simplistic call for Hindu domination and unity that ignores the facts. The novel becomes the personal and political account of a scholar under siege, forced to reconsider his own past and present.

The struggle with the fundamentalists pushes Murthy back to thoughts of his father, a man who fought for India’s freedom and then disappeared from his life.   Murthy believes in a multi-cultural India, emerging from a variety of traditions. He rejects attempts force its history into a narrow mold. In the past as in the present, there have been “hatemongers” who falsely claim that they have the only correct views.

It is the right of the people to a complex, pluralistic history. It is true that history is not an indisputable body of knowledge. But history itself shows us that attempts to ‘rectify’ it have all too often been a camouflage for the doctoring of history.

He understands that a complicated historical figure like Barasa can be viewed as dangerous because he challenges existing power structures. Those who would control power need to control how he is viewed.

Turn a leader into a minor god; a man into a saint. That is the only way to make him safely untouchable. Then his ideas and politics need not be understood; they won’t make your life uncomfortable. The lessons his life holds—what he saw then and what we see in hind sight—no longer have to be recalled. Or put into practice.

As Murthy gradually understands, his father and other aspects of the past can remain part of who he is.

Once he throws away all the safe crutches, he can truly walk in the present. Be free to be curious, to speculate; to debate, dissent. Reaffirm the value of the only heirloom he needs from the past, the right to know a thing in all the ways possible.

As an historian, I share Murthy’s challenge and appreciate his affirmations. I am all too aware that around the globe fundamentalists of various descriptions are demanding that we all reject parts of the body of knowledge that humans have worked to discover for centuries. The “culture wars” that have resulted push us all to ask ourselves how we know what we know and why it matters. What Githa Hariharan has done is to write about how such attacks become interwoven with our personal concerns and ability to fight back. A novel addressing these issues may sound dry and abstract, but not here. For Murthy the intellectual challenge opens into questions of who he is and what he stands for. Her depiction of him is teasing and playful, drawing us into his life and his choices.

Githa Hariharan was born in India and lived there much of her life. Now living in New Delhi, she has had a distinguished career as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. In addition she has held positions writing, editing and teaching at various institutions in India and aboard. Her writing often addresses social and political issues. As she says on her website, ‘All my work looks at power politics in some way or the other. Both fiction and non-fiction have a thousand ways of giving us a new take on the dynamics of power relations.’ She is particularly concerned about intolerance and the attempts in India to reject its multi-ethnic identity. She also a strong, articulate feminist. Although women are not the focus of In Time of Siege, her feminism is prominent in her other books and in the stories and articles on her website.

I strongly recommend this book, especially to all those who care about history in any form.  I am looking for some more of her books to read.

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