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The Thinking Woman, by Julienne van Loon.

July 13, 2020

The Thinking WomanThe Thinking Woman, by Julienne van Loon.  Rutgers, 2020.

FORTHCOMING:  October 2020.

3 stars

Provocative essays by an Australian writer about her engagement with six international feminist scholars whose ideas challenge traditional orthodoxies and enlarge our understanding of how we can live a good life.

Julienne van Loon (1970-) is an Australian author and academic. She has published three novels and various articles and short stories.  This is her first book of non-fiction.  She has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication and Cultural Studies at Curtin University and a Principal Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMTI, an international institution of higher education in Melbourne.  She is now an Associate Professor there.

The question of how to live a good life has been widely debated among traditional philosophers.   The author wants to expand that discussion with the ideas of lesser known women addressing new issues into the discussion of the “good life.”  Although the book is worthy of academic attention, Von Loon writes primarily for readers not aware of these ideas.    She deliberately addresses general readers hoping to encourage them to consider the challenges to orthodoxy that her book raises.  Hoping to relate to a broad audience, Von Loon has woven her own experiences into her discussion of abstract topics.  For example, when discussing changing concepts of love and family, she tells of her own divorce from her child’s father and long-term commitment to a man with whom she neither lives nor is married. Dealing with the topic of work, she relates her own decision to leave her teaching job when the university became too corporate and alienating.

The women whom Von Loon discusses represent a variety of academic disciplines, although not all are involved at universities.  They also are from diverse global locations, which is valuable since most of us do not keep up with international scholarship.  Von Loon’s topics and those she discusses include the following:  Love with cultural critic Laura Kipnis, Play with celebrated novelist Siris Hustvedt, Work with socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom, Friendship with philosopher Rosi Braidotti, Wonder with cultural historian Maria Warner, and Fear with French thinker Julia Kristeva.

Von Loon has written a useful book, although her discussion of topics is often less radical than she claims.  I found the inclusion of her own life self-centered and distracting.   I was very aware of how her words excluded women less privileged than herself.   Not all of us have the option of walking away from traditional roles as she is so proud of doing.  Although the title includes references to feminism, I thought the most feminist aspect of the book was how women are changing the traditional conversations by asking new questions that address our conditions.  Her discussion of those questions was more mundane.

The inquiry into “how we should live” and “what could change” is worth considering.  I recommend this book despite its weaknesses primarily because of the importance of the questions it raises.

Ballad of an American:  A Graphic History of Paul Robeson, by Sharon Rudhal.

July 7, 2020

Ballad of an American
Ballad of an American:  A Graphic History of Paul Robeson, by Sharon Rudhal.  Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware. Rutgers University Press,  2020.

Forthcoming: October 2020.

3 stars

A valuable graphic account of a multi-talented African American best known for his incredible singing voice and his radical activism.

Sharon Rudahl (1947- ) was among the first women to become involved in underground comics in the early 1970s.   She has continued to create and publish them ever since.  One of her most well-known is her graphic biography about Emma Goldman.  Her editors, Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, are experts on race and the American labor movement and give credibility to her biography of Robeson.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a major African American leader of the early twentieth century, especially before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.  Because his activism and his devotions to unpopular causes, he is less well known than he deserves.  After graduating from Rutgers University where he was a premier athlete, he became widely known for his great talents as an actor and singer.  He performed in both America and Europe where he created a major presence with his African American portrayals.  Because of his support of Communism, he was politically and violently attacked during the Cold War.  He responded with bravery.

I am thrilled to see a new graphic novel about Robeson.  I hope it is widely read.  I do wish that it had been easier to read and appreciate.  Having read the book as an ebook, I found the pictures and text too small to be read and appreciated easily.  I hope this is less true in hard copy.  Yet the problem was not simply the size.  I felt that the graphic form did not lend itself to so much information about Robeson and the world in which he acted.   While accurate and relevant, the sheer volume of words and pictures acted against the power of the graphic format.  I simply wish it had been more focused and concise.

I recommend this biography of Robeson as an important even if it could have been better executed.

Island , by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen. 

June 24, 2020

IslandIsland , by Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen.    Pushkin Press, 2020.    Translator from Danish, Caroline Waight.

4 stars

A gentle book by a Danish writer about her grandmother who migrated to Denmark from the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic and about her own links to the islands .

Siri Ranva Hjelm Jacobsen is a 40-year-old Danish writer with family roots on the Faroe Islands.  She lives in Copenhagen and writes in Danish.  She also writes for Danish literary publications.  Little biographical information was available about her.

Like the author, the narrator of Island is a descendant of grandparents who moved to Denmark from  the Faroe Islands, a group of small islands between Scotland and Iceland.  Their life stories alternate with the author’s response to her own identity as their granddaughter.   The author returns to the islands in reality and in her narrative, exploring her grandmother’s story and her own feelings about her heritage and her visits there as a child.  Although the narratives are not explicitly autobiographical, they seem to reflect her own experiences.

Moving descriptions of the islands in their varied moods make the book an enjoyable read, despite the fact that there is little real plot.  The author’s reflections on what it means to her to be the “third generation” to have migrated are particularly moving.  She recognizes her own diminished commitment to the past and to the goals of those who went before her.

This is a pleasant book, if not a major one.

Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World, by Jennifer Sinor. FAVORITE

June 18, 2020

Sky SongsSky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World, by Jennifer Sinor. University of Nebraska Press.

 

FORTHCOMING

5 stars FAVORITE

Brave, compelling personal, narrative essays by a young woman  in the American West about developing a sense of how to live in the world, despite its pain and brokeness.

Jennifer Sinor is a fine writer, a person who loves words and has learned to use them well.  In her book, she describes their value for her.  “Words root me to my life, stories give me a line to follow….”   Both sensitive and intelligent, she uses her words to capture both the reality of the Utah landscape where she lives and the events, ideas, and emotions that shape her life. Relating her own pain and fears, she gradually accepts that she will not always be able to protect those she loves.  But she also realizes that “Even in the darkest hour, not everything will be lost.”

Sinor was born in Kingsville, Texas, the daughter of a military family.  She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1987, and her MA in English from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Her Ph.D. in English is from the University of Michigan where she graduated in 2000.   Her dissertation focused on women’s autobiographical writing.  Since then she has lived in Logan, Utah, where she is a professor of English teaching at Logan State University where she teaches creative writing.  She has written three books with intriguing titles such as Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe and Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir.  Her writing has received awards and appeared in various publications.  She writes at the edges of conventional genres in a style that is variously called creative or literary non-fiction, memoir, or personal essays.

As a person who finished grad school recently, Sinor is aware of the current theories about words and language, but she deftly incorporating them in her writing rather than descending into jargon.  She is acutely aware of what it means to write and tell stories.  Words and memories matter, but they can never fully capture all of what we experience. Her book is arranged in generally chronological order with flashbacks filling readers in on her earlier life.  Each essay tells a particular story, leaving readers the simple task of filling the gaps between them.  She begins with her uncle’s tragic death in the Alaskan wilderness and her own first pregnancy, both around the time she finished her Ph.D. and went to Utah with her husband to teach. She tells about what motherhood has meant to her and the daily struggles of raising her small sons and teaching young college students.  Living in a deeply Mormon community, she learns tolerance, not for the institutional church but for the individuals seeking to live by its dictates, especially her gay and lesbian students.  Sinor loves wilderness and adventure, which shows in her concrete descriptions of the western region where she lives.  She is not a religious person and explains how God left her life.  The second half of the book, however, reveal her shift to Buddhist practices and values.  She tell of her teaching women in the local jail to chant, meditate, and do yoga and of the three months that she and her young family spent in India.  More importantly, without mentioning Buddhism, she conveys her growing ability to “love the broken world.”

I loved this book and recommend it widely to any readers who appreciate deeply probing writing that leaves you thinking and feeling in new ways.

The Bird Way:  A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, by Jennifer Ackerman.

June 15, 2020

The Bird WayThe Bird Way:  A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, by Jennifer Ackerman.

Forthcoming May 5, 2020

2 stars.

A collection of descriptions of unexpected behavior of birds from around the globe by an author who has written on a wide range of subjects.

Jennifer Ackerman has been publishing about nature and science for 30 years, receiving various awards and grants.   In addition to eight books, she has written articles for respected magazines like National Geographic and Scientific American and worked editing and publishing the nature writings of others.  Her books include two about birds and others about topics like the common cold, heredity, and the human body.

The subtitle of this book is an excellent statement of what this book is and of its merits and problems.  As Ackerman relates, birds and their unusual behavior patterns are intrinsically interesting.   In some cases she relates the stories of individual birds, each with its own uniqueness.  At other times she writes about the changing ways in which scientists who study birds have altered their own understandings of their subjects.  New technologies, such as better cameras, are often the cause of these new revelations. Other insights are simply recognition of scientists’ own biases.  For example, in the past, male birds have been believed to always be the most colorful and have the most interesting and complex vocalization.  More careful attention to female birds, however, makes clear that the opposite is often true.

Telling about the global existence of unusual behavior of birds presents a problem, however.  The Bird Way presents nuggets of information in an almost random order.  While there are general categories focusing on topics like talk or parenting, there is little structure within the sections or in the book as a whole.  There is no attempt to group birds by place or type of bird and only the vaguest attempt to group by actual behavior.  Our minds do not easily process such chaotic information.  Perhaps what I learned most from this book was the fundamental need for good organizing principles in books and in our thinking.

Convictions of Faith, by R.S. Basa.

June 9, 2020

Convictions of FaithConvictions of Faith, by R.S. Basa.  The Marked, 2020.

3 stars

Historical fiction about a real African woman, a prophet who led a popular religious movement which threatened local political leaders and the church in the Congo around 1700.

Kimpa Vita was an actual historical figure who lived from 1684-1706 in the Congo (what is now Angola).  She was a religious leader claiming to be a reincarnation of St.  Anthony.  She had numerous followers, and became a threat to both the Congolese political leaders and the Roman Catholic Church established by the Portuguese.  Claiming that the biblical Bethlehem, and Mary and Jesus were really Congolese, she was burned at the stake in 1706.  Her popularity long outlived  her, and her name later surfaced in African and slave revolts. Some have called her an African Joan of Arc.

R.S. Basa is a lawyer and scholar who defines himself as a “contrarian.”  He considers Kimpa Vita as another contrarian and his Conviction of Faith is an Afrocentric account of her life.  He claims that her movement was the precursor of attempts to combine African spirituality with European Catholicism.  He used Portuguese sources in his version of her story.

Certainly Basa establishes the importance of Kimpa Vita as a forceful religious leader who had an impact on African history.  How accurate his account of her life is remains less clear.  I know too little African history to judge.  I found the book not easy to read.  The long glossary which Basa includes is helpful, but hard to use in an ebook.  Typos clutter the text, and when and why characters move around is sometimes confusing.  None the less, I am glad to see Kimpa Vita brought to more readers and Basa’s new book gives us another much needed source on Africa during colonization.

Historical sources about Kimpa Vita include

Thornton, John K. 1998. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Ives Bortolot . “Women Leaders in African History: Dona Beatriz, Kongo Prophet.” Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University.  The Metropolitan Museum, 2003. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pwmn_4/hd_pwmn_4.htm

Kimpa Vita (Dona Beatrice) c. 1682 to 1706. Dictionary of African Christian Biography. http://www.dacb.org/stories/congo/kimpa_vita.html

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett.

June 5, 2020

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House, by Ann Patchett.  Harper Collins, 2019.

A novel about two siblings haunted into their adult lives by the loss of their mother, their father, and their big, strange home.

3 stars

Ann Pachett is a popular, contemporary fiction writer who has published seven novels, several of them bestsellers, as well as non-fiction and essays.  She is the winner of several prestigious literary awards.  Her education includes graduation from Sarah Lawrence College and the Iowa’s Writers Workshop. She lives in Nashville where she owns the Parnassus Bookstore.

Danny, the narrator of The Dutch House, and his sister, Mauve, lived with their father in a large, domineering house that previously had belonged to a “Dutch” family.  Their mother had hated the house and left the family.  The father remarried a younger woman who loved the house and rejected the children.  When their father died, she ran Danny and Mauve out of the house.  They bonded strongly, becoming a family of their own.  Their bonds and their nostalgia for the lost house continue as they become adults.  In an unusual ending, they reclaim part of their childhood.

Like many of Pachett’s books, The Dutch House is full of strange situations and characters.  It has an almost fairy tale atmosphere with Danny and Mauve as Hansel and Gretel. Their disorientation seems less sentimental than a sense of the loss of both psychological and economic security, even of identity.  The lives they create as adults seem cobbled together out of their past, in the end circling back to their childhood.

Pachett has long been a favorite author of mine, but I did not find this her best book.  In her previous books, I have been pulled into her unusual characters and situations, but not this time.  Other reviewers seem to have liked it better than I did.

An Elegant Woman, by Martha McPhee.

June 1, 2020

An Elegant Woman
An Elegant Woman, by Martha McPhee.  Scribner, 2020.

Forthcoming June 2020

5 stars

A wonderful novel about several generations of women of an American family, their reinventions and the personal narratives they create.

Martha McPhee is the daughter of nature writer, John McPhee, but she grew up in a large unconventional family when her mother remarried.  She is a fine storyteller, and her novel is full of telling details about people and places.  She does well placing her characters in the accurate context of times and places from the early 1900s to the present. Her characters are unique and memorable, even when they play minor roles in the story.   The central narrative never gets lost in the broader weave of stories which she tells. At the same time, her roughly chronological narrative is full of action and surprises that leave readers asking what might happen next.

In An Elegant Woman, Isadora creates a narrative of her grandmother by drawing on the stories her grandmother told her as a child and on documents she had kept.  The story gets complicated because Grammy reinvented herself and was also known as Thelma, Tommy, and Katherine, the last name having been her sister.  The confusion of names and identities is a basic issue in the book.

Tommy had been five when her mother, Gleena, left her husband taking her two daughters, Tommy and Katherine, west to what were then the wilds of Montana.  Intent on establishing herself, Gleena regularly left her daughters to fend for themselves or to be cared for by strangers while their mother taught school, campaigned for women’s suffrage, or flirted with men who could be useful to her. Learning survival skills from her mother, Tommy supported and protected her fragile younger sister, Katherine.  When her sister was not interested in Tommy’s plans, Tommy took Katherine’s name, identity and high school diploma and went to nursing school back east.  Katherine, as she now called herself, became a private nurse to wealthy New Yorkers, married well and created a comfortable life, while her sister settled into life with a loving but working class man. Katherine became “an elegant woman” but one troubled by her inability to control her children or the world around her. The dynamics of her childhood lasted into the adult lives of the daughters and their children.  McPhee conveys the complexity of the relationships of the mothers, grandmothers, and daughters as each invents themselves in different times and places.

In telling the stories of her characters, McPhee raises unanswerable questions, especially about truth and personal narratives.  While she sees the necessity of our creation of narratives by which we live and the need to sometime recreate ourselves, she is not glib.  In addition, she explores the difficulties that our self creations can cause ourselves and others.  Her characters reveal how our stories can be problematic when they stray too far away from the concrete realities of our lives.  We cannot erase our fears of world around us by ignoring the threats it poses.  We cannot force society to yield to our control or force others, especially our children, to live out our narratives rather than their own.

I read An Elegant Woman while quarantined for the COVID virus, fully aware of  the damage that the American president caused by proclaiming lies about the dangers.  He tried to control the reality of the disease with his own narrative of it, only to see thousands dead.  As McPhee writes, sometimes we need history to liberate itself from the lies we tell.

I highly recommend this book, especially to readers sensitive to questions of self-creation, truth, and lies.

The Well of Ice: An Inishowen Mystery, by Andrea Carter.

May 30, 2020

The Well of IceThe Well of Ice: An Inishowen Mystery, by Andrea Carter.  Oceanview Publishing, 2020.

Forthcoming:  November 10, 2020.

4 stars

An interesting novel, the third in a series of mysteries about a troubled woman lawyer living in a tiny village on the Irish seacoast and seeking to solve crimes.

Andrea Carter earned her law degree in Dublin, Ireland, and practiced law there.  Like her main character, she has lived and worked for a time as a solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula, County Donegal.  She describes the origin of her writing as a way “of saying the things I wanted to say but couldn’t, of behaving in a way I wanted to [behave] but couldn’t.”  Other novels in the series are Death at Whitewater Church and Treacherous Strand.

At the core of the Inishowen mysteries is Benedicta O’Keeffe, known as Ben, a woman lawyer who has taken refuge in an isolated village where she hopes to avoid the traumatic history of her past.  While living there she has made friends, both female and male, and has a fragile relationship with a man in the police corp.  Arson at the local pub and a missing person begin a pattern of disturbance and fear, which Ben seeks to end.  In the process, her safe refuge is invaded.  She is confronted with the pain and dangers of her past life.

Carter has created an intriguing mystery, one full of moving descriptions of the rugged Irish coast.  Her characters are vivid individuals, many of whom become suspected of the crime.  Ben’s need for a safe place for herself after trauma is a well-developed theme.  Although I had read Carter’s previous books, I had forgotten their plots and was grateful for how gracefully Carter filled in the relevant references to them.

This is the kind of mystery that I enjoy; full of interesting places and people and, more psychological than cozy.  I am glad to recommend A Well of Ice to readers who share my preferences.

Her Here, by Amanda Dennis.

May 27, 2020

Her Here

Her Here, by Amanda Dennis.  Bellevue Press, 2021

Forthcoming 2021

4 stars

A haunting, philosophical novel, set in Paris, about a motherless daughter helping a daughterless mother find her child who has disappeared in Thailand by creating a narrative about her.

Amanda Dennis is an academic, now teaching at the American University of Paris, and following her interests in the relationship of philosophy and literature.  She was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Princeton.  In addition, she has a PhD from Berkeley, an MPhil in European Literature and Culture from Cambridge, and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  An avid traveler, she has lived around the globe and received international awards and fellowships. Her numerous scholarly articles relate to twentieth-century French philosophers, their relationship to literature, and their challenges of previous theories.  Her next book focuses on Samuel Beckett.  In addition, she writes and edits several literary journals.

In Her Here Elena goes to Paris shaken by her mother’s death and hoping to accomplish research for her dissertation. There she meets Siobhan, an early friend of her own mother.  Siobhan’s daughter, Ella ran away to Thailand and has been missing for six years.  Siobhan hires Elena to “translate” the journals that Ella kept in hope that Elena can recover her daughter in a narrative even though she is still missing in reality.  Elena takes on the project, and the novel moves back and forth between Elena coping with her own troubled life in Paris and the narrative she is creating about Ella’s confused life in Thailand.   As Elena works, she increasingly fears that she is being taken over by Ella and led into madness.

Her Here is a lyrical and exciting novel, its tension focused on what happens to both women.  At the same time, the book is grounded in Dennis’s interest in phenomenology.  There is fluidity in the novel that will either appeal to readers or repel them.  Perhaps Dennis is working out in fiction some of the same themes of identity, embodiment, and the power of narrative that contemporary academic theory also addresses.

One reviewer has called Her Here an “existential detective story.” I recommend it primarily to readers who are interested in such a book.