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Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif

March 19, 2017


Daring to Drive, by Manal al-Sharif.  Simon & Schuster (2017), 304 pages.

4 stars

An autobiographical account of a woman living under the extreme Islamic restrictions of Saudi Arabia, establishing her career in computer science, and attempting to drive an automobile in the country.

Manal al-Sharif was born in 1979, the daughter of a deeply religious working class family. As an adolescent, she embraced extreme Islam, the only life she knew. Unlike other girls, her mother insisted that she and her sister study rather than help with household chores.  She graduated from high school and went on to study computer science in college where she continued to be an excellent student.  She was hired as a computer scientist by the government-owned oil company, Aramco, and moved to the city they had built for their workers.  This city was governed by western customs; women could drive and were not required to be totally covered at all times.  While working she married, had a child, and then was divorced in order to continue her employment. Although she was successful in her career, restrictions on women in the nation plagued her.  Among the most bothersome was the prohibition of women driving.  Her activism on this issue led to her exile.

Al-Sharif tells her story in clear, readable prose.  In her acknowledgments, she notes that she had help organizing and writing her book.  At times it is not quite clear how or why she became as exceptionally successful as she did.  What is clear is that as she was empowered as an individual, she questioned the way women were treated in her country.  She never seems to question her faith and practice of Islam, simply the restrictive and legalistic way in which religious and governmental leaders enforced its practice.  Her focus is on the practical obstacles that her religion put in her way.  Her protest is never an abstract demand for rights, but about the details of her life.

The way in which Al-Sharif tells her story provides readers with unusual insight into what it means to be a woman under Wahhabi, the extremist version of Islam which holds power in Saudi Arabia.  Through her eyes we see how women must organize their lives so that a father, husband, brother, or son is present to approve or prohibit every move they make. Everything is structured around a woman being totally in the control of a male relative. Living alone is virtually impossible.  At times the rules actually make women’s lives more dangerous, as they must move around town only in a car with a male driver whose company has been approved.

The absurdity of the restrictions and the panic over the possibility of change is particularly clear when Al-Sharif and other women begin to communicate online around the issue of driving.  Somewhat naively, Al-Sharif took a video of herself driving and was jailed.  The uproar she caused is amazing.  She was accused of being an Iranian spy and of inciting all Saudi women to give up their virginity.

Daring to Drive is an important book, although I might wish Al-Sharif had written with more psychological and literary depth.  Since I began reading about women and Islam, I have been impressed by how Islamic women have been enriched by their faith, just as Christian woman have, although both religions are patriarchal institutions.  In this book, I was able to see the other extreme where Islam, again like Christianity, can be used in destructive ways.

I recommend this book to all who want to understand the wide variety of Islamic women’s lives.

Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

February 28, 2017

Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.  Transit Books (2017), 446 pages.

5 stars

A compelling family saga by a Ugandan woman about a curse inherited by later generations of Ugandans.

Jennifer Makumbi was born and raised in Uganda where her father was a victim of Idi Amin.  She grew up and taught in the country before earning her Ph.D. and teaching in England.  Her writing is deeply embedded in the lives and legends of the people of her country.

Her book begins in the 1700s when Kintu was a local leader of his tribe.  In the course of his life, he and his descendants are cursed.  Then the narrative shifts to the experiences of several branches of his family in the near past. Names of the original family are handed down, sometimes in variations, twins persist in each generation and the curse plays out in their lives.  Each family story is told in detail with a few minor connections between them.  As the book ends, individuals from each part of the family come together to try to remove the curse.  As always with good literature, the results are full of ambiguity and surprises.

Makumbi is a talented writer able to engage readers in the stories of her characters, even when those stories are foreign to them.  The book abounds in Ugandan names and places. Characters often go by several names. Myths and traditions unfamiliar to non-Ugandan readers appear. This is a book centered on Ugandans, with minor references to colonization.  And yet the characters are strongly depicted, allowing all readers access to their lives.

I cannot claim to have fully understood everything in this book, but I enjoyed it and gladly recommend it to others.

Voices of the Survivors, by Patricia Easteal.

February 22, 2017

Voices of the Survivors, by Patricia Easteal. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 1994.  262 pages.

4 stars

A powerful report on a survey into sexual abuse of Australian women, many of whom tell their own stories of pain, struggle and sometimes healing.

In 1992 Australian Broadcasting System aired a program, Without Consent, about sexual abuse.  Accompanying it was a questionnaire that women who had been abused were asked to answer.  Along with their answers, 2300 letters from women and 97 from men wrote letters and comments about their own experiences of abuse.  The responses to that questionnaire and the women’s accounts form the core of this book.  Patricia Easteal, with the Australian Institute of Criminology, has summarized the findings and provided context for the women’s own stories.  She has also published a large number of previous books, many of them about women and criminal justice.

All those connected with the original study and those at Spinifex Press are to be congratulated for the effort that went into the project and its publication.  Although the actual data was collected almost 20 years ago, too little has changed.  Conditions depicted here are all too common in many countries besides Australia. This book is part of a vital, ongoing effort to educate a wider swath of society about the damage caused by sexual assault. Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching, yet the problem continues.  Here women are able to give voice to their own stories and receive validation for what they have endured.  Hopefully their voices will allow other women to recognize sexual assault in their own lives and society will begin to take them more seriously.

This is a significant book, but it is not an easy book to read, partly because of the horrors being described.  In addition, many of the women’s accounts are short, and readers like myself had trouble relating to them.  For that reason I found Spinifex’s recent book, Prostitution Narratives, with its longer stories, even more effective in taking us inside the women who are suffering.  Still, this book has information we all need to understand the world we live in.  I recommend it widely.

And as always, thanks to Spinifex for providing us all with important books that help us understand the plights of women.


Hadriana in All My Dreams, by Rene Depestre.

February 15, 2017

Hadriana in All My Dreams, by Rene Depestre.  Akashic Books. Translated by Kaiama L. Glover. 2017

First published 1988.

4 stars

A magical novel by a prominent Haitian author that is full of life and death, carnival, zombies, and longings.

Rene Depestre was born in 1926 in Haiti.  Educated in Haiti, he was active in political resistance, exiled, and lived much of his life in Cuba and in France.  Primarily known as a poet and for this novel, he is an important figure in world literature.  His writing is bold and inventive; by turns erotic and satirical.  In her introduction to this book Edwidge Danticat notes the supernatural and surrealism elements in his work and how he writes about “the daily mysteries of life.”

Hadriana in All My Dreams is set in Jacmel, the town where Depestre was born and a place known for its unique atmosphere.  The story is narrated by a young Haitian man who relates the story of Hadriana, a beautiful young Creole woman with whom he shares a god-mother.  From the start it is a story about the flexible line between life and death.  Hadriana is to be married to a handsome young man in a wedding timed to coincide with the celebration of carnival.  In the midst of the rollicking anarchy and sexual display, the bride collapses at the altar and is buried.  Death appears in the midst of a celebration of life.  But Hadriana is not in fact dead.  Witch doctors have poisoned her in order to turn her into a zombie.  The last section of the book follows her struggle to escape from zombiehood.   In the middle of the story, Depestre writes a rather serious discussion relating how zombies seem to be what colonizers are trying to achieve with their subjects.  Like evil witch doctors, colonial powers hope to reduce their subjects to an obedient, death-like state where they will do the work they are assigned without challenging it or claiming full person-hood.

Deprestre’s novel is unusual, in my experience, but I can understand why it has appealed to other readers.  It affirms life in the face of death, freedom and sensuality in face of order. Vodou and zombies inhabit the space between living and dying. I recommend the book to readers who are open and flexible to an unusual narrative.  I do not recommend the book to those who are uncomfortable with chaos and public sexuality.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

February 12, 2017

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit. Haymarket Books, 2016.  With new forward and afterward.  First published 2004.

4 stars

A wise call to citizen political activism based on hope of changing the future by being flexible in the present and remembering our past successes.

Rebecca Solnit is a California writer and activist who has published a number of books related to Progressive causes. She is also a contributor to Harpers.  Hope in the Dark was originally written in 2004 as George W. Bush was initiating the war in Iraq.  Added chapters deal with the response to 9/11 and climate change.  The new forward addresses the political situation we find ourselves in today.  While references indicate these particular crises, Solnit’s words have an urgency that transcends them making her book significant as we seek to survive a Trump presidency.

The kind of hope that Solnit advocates is not purely personal or private.  It demands a public response that is essential if we seek to challenge repressive political power.  Hope is about realizing that the status quo is not inevitable.  Because we know that change has occurred before we can hope to bring about change now.  For Solnit, hope is not about ignoring real problems or assuming they can be quickly and easily fixed.  Hope is the knowledge that situations can be changed and that doors can be opened to unimaginable alternatives.  Hope is being willing to stand up to oppression even when we are unsure what our bravery can achieve.  Rather than providing a static alternative, hope allows us to be comfortable with differences.  Hope is being in the struggle for the long-term and realizing that perhaps all we can do is plant seeds for future change.

One source of hope, for Solnit, is to remember that of past movements have led to positive change.  She asks us to remember and honor what people acting outside of government have achieved.  As she notes, the media is slow to acknowledge and cherish the victories that civil action has won.  We ourselves tend to forget what has been gained, instead of commemorating it in our stories.  Solnit devotes large portions of her book to telling about the victories of the past couple of decades. Although I have kept reasonably informed over those years, I was surprised at how many of those stories I had forgot or never heard.  I also appreciated her comments about how we choose to remain cynical and frozen because we can act worldly and safe.

At times, I wished this book had been better written.  It could have been more powerful with fewer quotations and less repetition.  But, despite its flaws, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.  For many of us, the Trump election has been numbing.  We are left wanting to resist a multitude of his actions, but feel stymied.  We need a wise and perceptive voice like Solnit’s to help us regain a sense of empowerment today more than ever.

The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin.

February 6, 2017

The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin.

4 stars

A mystery set in Istanbul in the 1830, full of drama, suspense, and a host of fascinating characters.

Jason Goodwin, born in England in 1964, studied the Ottoman Empire at Cambridge and went on write travelogues of Europe and Asia and a history of the Ottomans.  Then he turned his deep knowledge about the subject into a series of historical mysteries featuring Yashim, a eunuch investigator living in Istanbul in the 1830s and 1840s.  The first novel in the series, The Janissary Tree, won the Edgar Award.  Four additional novels have extended Yashim’s adventures.

Goodwin tells a complicated tale of Yashim searching simultaneously for the killers of several victims.  A young woman in the sultan’s harem was murdered and jewels belonging to the sultan’s mother were stolen.  In addition four young officers in the sultan’s new, reorganized army have undergone particularly gruesome deaths that may be related to imperial polices.  In seeking to solve these crimes, Yashim explores all over the city; in the palace, mosques, the Russian embassy, and the city’s narrow poverty-filled alleys. Friends and enemies of his help and hinder him along the way.  As he searches for those responsible for the murders, Yashim suspects that imperial and international forces are at work.  The Janissaries were once a strong force. Yashim must discover what they intend to do and stop them.

I enjoyed The Janissary Tree and hope to read more of this series, I found Goodwin’s descriptions of his varied characters both probing and distinctive.  Yet I struggled at times with the unfamiliar setting and political situation.  Like Yashim, I needed a good map—and perhaps a glossary or cast of characters.  While the mysteries are key to the plot, the book is much more about the time and place.  I recommend it to readers who like mysteries that bridge cultures.

Re-Membering, by Ann Millett-Gallant.

January 28, 2017

Re-Membering, by Ann Millett-Gallant.  BookBaby (2016).

3 stars

An insightful and wide-reaching memoir by an art historian about her recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

Ann Millet-Gallant has a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of North Carolina and is actively involved in Disability Studies.  Her previous books are Disability in Contemporary Art and Disability in Art History.  She herself was born with hands and feet which were not fully formed, but she had been able to adapt successfully enough to live a relatively normal life and complete her degree.  Then a freak accident with the scooter which she used for mobility resulted in a very serious traumatic injury to her brain.  Her brain injury interfered with her ability to move the rest of her body.  Her sense of her identity wavered. With the help of family and friends, she was able to move on with her life, marrying, doing art, and writing.

Re-Membering is personal memoir, but not a linear account of Millet-Gallant’s recovery. Like the collages she created as art therapy, the book is a verbal collage of personal experience and academic theory, experience, medical information and art.  Millet-Gallant explains that the book and her art reflect her own thought processes as well as the more nebulous theories popular among some scholars currently.  Yet the theory is interwoven with moving accounts of the author’s own sensations and experiences

I would recommend this book primarily for those who have brain trauma or love someone who does.  It could be a valuable reaffirmation that one who suffers is not alone.

While I appreciate receiving a digital copy of this book, the author’s art work was hard to appreciate in this format.  Her works can be seen on her website.