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Wave, by Hoa Pham

July 31, 2015

Wave, by Hoa Pham. Australia, Spinifex Press, forthcoming 2016.


4 stars

A lyrical novel about a lesbian couple, one woman from Japan and the other from Korea, who meet as students in Australia and find happiness in their love until their lives are hit with a series of catastrophes.

Hoa Pham is an accomplished writer of plays and books. A Vietnamese Australian, she is active in efforts to make available the writing of Asian Australians. She founded Peril, an online magazine in 2006. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing and also works as a psychologist.

As international students in college in Melbourne, Midori from Japan and Au Co from North Korea initially feel lonely and alienated. Then they find each other and their lives together are good. But their happiness is disrupted by tragedies of our modern world: the tsunami which struck northern Japan and a classroom shooting at their university. As they try to deal with their personal connections to these tragedies, they grow apart. As Pham describes, “we were we until we became you and me” which may be the worst tragedy of all.

Pham has written a creative and moving story using the particularity of two women to address the universal dangers we face in today’s world. Her writing is powerful, spare, and beautiful. Her sense of the psychology of her characters brings them into our reality. This is a fine book that I recommend wholeheartedly.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for providing me a copy of this fine books to review.

All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West.

July 30, 2015

All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West.  Little, Brown Book Group (1983), New Edition. 192 pages

5 stars

The warm, compassionate account of an elderly woman who rejects the noise and competition of her children’s world to find grace and happiness in the small details of her life.

Few enough books chronicle the lives of old women, and even fewer convey how they find joy and happiness as they age. All Passion Spent does just that and more. Lady Shane is eighty-nine when her illustrious husband dies. Her six children, all elderly themselves, assemble to make plans for her care, but she has her own ideas about her future. After having lived her life in her husband’s shadow, she seeks time alone where she can put down her responsibility to others and reminisce. She rents a small house in Hampstead, near London, makes a few friends, and takes pleasure in little things that make up her life.

All Passion Spent was written in 1931 by Vita Sackville-West, a close friend of Virginal Woolf. She was in the thirties when she wrote it, and in many ways, unusually perceptive of what it means to be elderly. Like Woolf, Sackville-West was appalled at the way upper-class English women were expected to submerge themselves in their husbands’ needs and wants. Although fictional, her book evokes Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Age allows Lady Shane to pursue her own desires and to reject the restrictions under which she has lived her life. She can remember her own dreams of self-expression and becoming an artist, dreams that were sacrificed with her marriage. Although she remains gentle and charming, she is finally able to rebel.

While there is much a contemporary feminist can celebrate in Lady Shane’s critique of the expectations which women face, I found some of her attitudes troubling. Her children may be hide-bond and dull, but they are right about their mothers’ passivity and impracticality. She finds an alternative to submersion in her husband by withdrawing, not in finding a way to participate in the larger world around her. She remains dependent on the maid who has served her for most of her life and even turns to one of her children to help her resolve a major financial matter.  Her new friends are men who, while eccentric and amusing, also assist her.  Few of us today would be willing to give up so much. For women today, safety has come from self-reliance. Part of my problems with aging concerns my increased dependence on others. And I refuse to believe that all my passions are over.

Yet whatever my complaints, I loved reading about a woman who found a way to grow and cherish her life as she aged. All Passion Spent was a book that helped me understand how to deal with my own aging.  I strongly recommend it to other readers—women and men, young and old.

Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

July 29, 2015

Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.  Vintage (2014), 384 pages.


5 stars   MY FAVORITES

An amazing novel by a Kenyon woman about her country and her people, about their grief and their regrets.

Yvonne Adhiambo is a talented and innovative writer telling stories about her homeland and the violence it has suffered. She writes in compelling and complex prose that touches on universal themes. Her descriptions are rich and full, often including unexpected words that push readers to reconsider what we thought we knew. She reveals the contradictions within her characters with sharp insight. This is simply among the best written books I have read this year. Numerous reviews in major publications share my high option of her book.

Dust is set in Kenya and works on several levels.  A young man is killed in Nairobi. His stoic father and worshiping sister bring his body back to his home village where others share in their grief.   They not only grieve for the young man but for their country and for their own hopes and dreams.   In flashbacks they relive their own earlier actions and face their shame and guilt over what they did in the years of civil war. The Kenyans are joined by a young Englishman whose parents had lived in the country before independence. He comes seeking to learn about his father and discovers the scars of colonization.

I strongly recommend this book to all who appreciate fine writing as well as those seek to understand postcolonial disruption.

I am back—finally

July 29, 2015

Almost two months ago, my husband and I left our beloved desert mountains for the rainy, tree-covered hills of Tennessee.  The trip itself was bad enough.  No catastrophes, only  lots of little crises.  And waiting for our furniture to arrive was even worse.  But now we are settling into our new home, and I can begin blogging again.

I have read lots of books since I have been offline, and made some brief remarks I will be turning into blog post, if not real reviews, in the days ahead.  Several were excellent books I am eager to share with readers whom I think would also enjoy them.  Others are books of varying merit that I received as pre-publication review copies by promising to write about them.  As always, my reading has been diverse and often by women writers from a wide range of cultures.  I hope you will find something of interest in my shortened comments.  When I get caught up, I will go back to long, more thoughtful reviews.

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


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.


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