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The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela.

October 5, 2015

The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela. Grove Press (2016), 320 pages.

5 stars

A complex and beautifully written novel weaving together the narratives of a contemporary Muslim woman and the struggle of Muslims and Russians in the mid-1800s in the Caucasus Mountains, which she is researching.

Leila Aboulela is a Muslim woman from Sudan who has written several fine novels focusing on a variety of Islamic women. I have read and enjoyed several of them. (See my reviews) I found them particularly valuable because they gave me a sense of what women found in Islam and the diverse way it is meaningful for them. She conveys the differences among the women and her books are a good corrective for those claiming that Islam is totally bad for women.

In The Kindness of Enemies, Aboulela has undertaken a broader and more complicated narrative than previously. One thread is a first person account of Natasha Hussein, a woman in Scotland, herself the child of a Russian mother and Sudanese father, and confused and troubled by the chaos of her childhood. Of mixed race, she has never felt a sense of belonging in Scotland where she teaches. Her dark skin and her religion continue to be problematic for her. Her research has focused on a Muslim chieftain in the Caucasus Mountains of the region we know today as Chechnya. He had fought against his region’s take over by the Russians. Natasha finds friendship with a male student and his mother who are Sufi and descended from the man whom she is researching.

After a segment following Natasha’s story, each chapter moves back to the middle of the nineteenth century and events surrounding the conflict between the Russians and the Islamic tribes resisting colonization by Russia and lead by Imam Shamil.  Anne, the wife of a Russian official, was born a princess of Georgia, a province newly annexed by Russia. Despite having been part of the glamour and excitement of the court in St. Petersburg, she prefers living in her Georgian homeland. She is captured and taken to Imam Shamil to be exchanged for his son, Jamaleldin who was taken as a hostage by the Russians. While she finds much about her imprisonment stressful, she makes friends with some of Shamil’s family, and achieves a strange, limited rapport with the Iman himself.  Like Natasha, Anne and Jamaleldin share a sense of not really belonging in the society in which they find themselves.

Aboulela is at her best in depicting the complex and ambivalent feelings of all the characters affected by the dual imprisonment. Her descriptions are always sensitive and often exquisite. I was particularly moved by her ability to reveal Anne’s mixed emotions when she is returned to her Russian husband. I was reminded of accounts by Anglo women captured by Native Americans. On one hand, she is glad to be freed from imprisonment, but she cannot share her husband’s desire for revenge against those who had become her friends. The ending of the book is weak, however, in part because Aboulela remains true to the historical facts about her major characters’ lives. History is never as neat as fiction can be.

The Kindness of Enemies is an enjoyable and informative book. I learned much about a part of the world I knew little about. I recommend it heartily to a wide variety of readers.

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.

October 2, 2015

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  W. W. Norton & Company (2015).

5 stars

A beautiful and informative account by a Japanese American woman’ of her personal journey into traditional Japanese practices around death and grief.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father. She grew up in the United States but spent much of her childhood in Japan, most often at the temple where her relatives still reside.  As a child she absorbed the language and culture of Japan at an experiential level.  As an adult she understands herself as belonging to both Japan and the “West,” giving her articulation of the differences between these cultures unusual grace and depth.

Three years after her father’s death Mockett remained caught in grief and depression. Then her Japanese grandfather died and the massive tsunami struck the region of Japan where her family lived. The security she had felt in Japan as a child seemed to be eroding. Over the next couple of years she returned to Japan several times deliberately exploring the traditional ways the Japanese deal with death and grief. In this book, she describes these journeys.  In the process she relates the basic history of Japan and of its Buddhist and Shinto religions.  At the same time she is coping with her own personal grief and seeking a new balance in her life.

Mockett is basically a skeptic about the supernatural, yet she participates in the rituals and ceremonies.  Such behavior is totally acceptable in Japan.  As a man explains to her. “We believe.  We don’t believe. Half and half.” Unlike the Judaeo-Christian and Muslim faiths, the traditional Japanese religion focuses on practice rather than commitment.   The Japanese are also accepting of the existence of ghosts and spirits.  While Mockett tries to discount these supernatural creatures, she cannot always find more rational explanations for what she and others experience.

As part of her intellectual and emotional journey, Mockett visited and stayed in various temples and shrines where she talked with priests and other participants, many of them intriguing characters.  Her descriptions of Zen, Pure Land, and Shingon Buddhism was one of the clearest I have read. She also relates her conversations with ordinary people: innkeepers, those who lost loved ones in the tsunami, and other visitors to the religious sites.

Gradually Mockett moves into discussion of rituals, sites, and practices around death and the spirits of the dead. She visits a volcano in a peninsula on the northern end he main island of Japan that is said to be a place devoted to grief and the spirits of the dead. Here and elsewhere she experiences people’s public and collective grief.

For me, one of the most moving sections of the book was Mockett’s experiences with Obon, several days of rituals held throughout the country when it is said that the barrier separating the living and the dead thins. Ceremonies by the living call the dead back to those who loved them. After several days of communication, the dead are sent away. Candles that represent the souls of the dead are lit and put on tiny boats. The candle boats are then placed on the river and sail away. Watching the departing boats Mockett observes that the candle boats drift into patterns rather than follow individual routes. Through this and other rituals, she is relieved to realize that the dead are not alone but always part of a community of living and dead. Last month a group near where I live observed the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by launching candle boats, but I had not known this was part of an ancient Japanese tradition.

As she journeys around Japan, Mockett observes that she finds relief from the sadness that had weighted her down. Regardless of her beliefs, the rituals helped. Her grief has not gone away, but it no longer overwhelms her. She is able to accept her loss by recognizing its presence. Uncomfortable with the model of American counseling, she notes that Japanese do not grieve in private. Instead they come together with strangers to ring bells and perform other loud and perform other public, symbolic acts together. She finds comfort in joining in the grief of others.

When I about this book I was eager to read it because I had loved Mockett’s novel, Picking Bones from Ash. (See my review.) I put off reading it, however, because I feared reading about death and grief would be depressing.  Instead I found Mockett’s new book to be warm and life-affirming because it is able to accept suffering, as Buddhism affirms, because all of us suffer.

I heartily recommend When the Dead Pause to all readers who are interested in Japan or Buddhism. Mockett gives us an account of how Japanese Buddhism is practiced, not an idealized or abstract description. More importantly, Mockett’s book takes us through her own grief and the relief she gains by participating with others in ritual grieving.  In doing so, she makes an important contribution to how we all face life and death.

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge, by Ovidia Yu.

September 28, 2015

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge, by Ovidia Yu.  William Morrow Paperbacks (2016), 256 pages

3 stars

An appealing mystery, the third in a series featuring a woman in Singapore who owns a restaurant, understands about foods, and is good at figuring out who has committed a crime.

Aunty Lee is a wonderfully drawn figure, something of a Southeast Asian Miss Marple. She is an observant busybody always looking for clues about people and their taste in food.  I loved the bits of advice she regularly shared. Around her she draws multi-ethnic characters, all of them sympathetically drawn. In this book, an English woman has been killed after threatening a law suit against some of Aunty Lee’s friends. Through her attention to detail and her connections with the police, Aunty Lee unravels a complicated mystery enabling everyone still alive to live happily ever after.

Ovida Yu is a resident of Singapore and a well-received author in her community.  She has published a large number of novels and plays. She is knowlegeable about the city’s residents and capable of writing entertaining accounts of them.  Her novel is full of ethnic diversity.  As often happens with books in a series, however, I would have enjoyed the book more if I had read the previous books and known the backstories of the people involved in this one.

A larger problem for me was that I knew almost nothing of Singapore and its peoples, and I had trouble at times following what was being said. I simply couldn’t understand the words naming foods and identifying characters. I am sure that readers from Singapore could recognize characters ethnic identities from their names, but I could not. I did not even know what it meant that Aunty Lee herself was a “Peranakan” and that she cooked “Peranakan” dishes for her restaurant until I found on Wikipedia that she was descended from Chinese who had settle along the Malaysian Straits and had their own style of cooking.  A few words of explanation would have been useful if the book is to appeal to an international audience.

I recommend this book to those who like “cozy,” people-centered mysteries, and especially those who know and love multi-cultural Singapore.

Thanks to the publishers for sending me a digital copy of this book to review.

The Firebrand and the First Lady, by Patricia Bell-Scott.

September 25, 2015

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, by Patricia Bell-Scott.   Knopf (2016), 464 pages.

4 stars

A fine dual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murphy, a younger African American activist, the causes they both supported, and the times in which they lived.

The friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murphy was an unlikely one. Murphy was 26 years younger than Roosevelt: she was black, working-class, impatient and radical. Yet Roosevelt accepted her angry confrontations and mentored her, and slowly they developed into valued friends. This book is an account of that friendship.

Patricia Bell-Scott is a distinguished scholar, now Professor Emeritusat the University of Georgia. She has played a key role in developing Black Women’s Studies, co-editing the anthology, Some of Us Were Brave, and founding  Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. The depth of her research and insights are evident in this book as she moves the focus back and forth between the two women and the larger picture of the social and political forces at work in their world. She has a scholar’s dedication to getting the facts right at the same time she conveys them with grace for non-scholars.

Most of us know something about Eleanor Roosevelt, yet Bell-Scott enlarged my understanding of her character and actions. Pauli Murphy is less well known. She was a mulatto woman from North Carolina, raised into a family that honored education. She had experienced the pain and danger of racism up close. In 1938 she was working as a teacher in the WPA and applying to attend grad school at the University of North Carolina.  When Franklin Roosevelt spoke glibly about the liberality of the South, she responded with a long elegant letter confronting him with what it was like to be a Negro. And she sent a copy to his wife. Eleanor responded by paraphrasing some of Pauli’s points in her daily newspaper column. Pauli would not be admitted to UNC, but her conversations with the First Lady had begun.

Pauli Murphy’s life was always a turbulent one full of disappointments. The NAACP refused to take on her case against UNC; perhaps because her politics were to the left of theirs or perhaps because the fact she was a lesbian had become known. She was hired by small organizations including one to save a sharecropper from the death penalty in Virginia. She went on to study law where her ability was recognized, but she was repeatedly hindered by either her race or her sex. Eleanor Roosevelt initially urged her to tame her passions. Gradually, however, their friendship became more equal as each supported and cared for the other as individuals. Both women were very sensitive and compassionate and curious about how others viewed the world.

As Bell-Scott traces the actions and accomplishments of both women, she gives a detailed picture of the range of efforts for civil rights and fairness for women during the 1940s and 1950s. Often their actions seemed minor or ineffectual at the time but they were critical in establishing the movements of the 1960s. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor went on to champion international cooperation and the United Nations while Pauli Murphy continued her legal scholarship and became one of the first women to be an Episcopal priest. They worked together on President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status for Women.

The Firebrand and the First Lady is both deeply enjoyable and very informative. In it we can see real individuals in action and about to transcend their differences. I recommend it strongly to many readers.

Dalva, by Jim Harrison

September 22, 2015

My blog has had technical problems which took a month to resolve.  In trying to locate what was wrong I removed this book which I had posted at the point the problem appeared. 

Dalva, by Jim Harrison.  Washington Square Press (1991), Edition: Reprint, 324 pages.

4 stars

A wonderful, enjoyable novel about a woman who returns to her home on the prairie of western Nebraska as she searches for the son she had to give up at birth.

Dalva is a 45-year-old woman living in California as the book begins. A strong, competent woman, she has had a full and interesting life, but is ready to go back to the place where she grew up in western Nebraska. As a teenager, Dalva had a baby with a man who was half Sioux. Her family forced her to give the baby, and he  disappeared from her life. Although other family members remain close, she has lost both her father and the only man she has truly loved.  Now she wants to know what has happened to her son.

The farm to which Dalva returns is a legacy of her great-grandfather, a man who had come to the Great Plains as an agricultural missionary to the Sioux, only to find that they rejected both his religion and farming. Accompanying Dalva is Michael, an historian researching her grandfather’s journals about the end of Sioux dominance. Michael is a caricature of an urban academic who has almost no social or survival skills and little understanding of the people he is researching. The journals he studies provide readers with a story within the story as Dalva’s grandfather becomes an advocate of the Sioux and deeply unpopular with other settlers.

Jim Harrison has written numerous novels and books of poetry. His writing has often been shaped by the sparsely settled in the western USA, a region he knows well and writes about with great appreciation and love. Although he is not a Native American and writes from the perspective of the white settlers in Dalva, he writes about the Sioux with sensitivity and knowledge. Obviously, he mourns the passage of their culture. He also reveals real empathy for his women characters, something not all male writers of the west manage to do. Although he makes fun of academic historians, he notes in his introduction how valuable they have been to him in writing about the past. His book makes clear how well he knows the history of the west. At times he falls into angry rants about what is wrong with our nation’s past and present, but the fact I generally agree with him makes his anger tolerable in this otherwise well-written book. His writing of people and places is compelling. His landscapes are so dramatically specific to the Great Plains that they made me homesick.

I warmly recommend this book and his other books to all readers enjoy reading about the rural west, and especially to those who have roots there or simply love its open landscape.


Another Woman’s Daughter, by Fiona Sussman.

September 20, 2015

Another Woman’s Daughter, by Fiona Sussman.  Berkley (2015), 304 pages.

4 stars

A compelling novel about a black South African girl, adopted by a white couple who took her back to England, about the mother she left behind, and her search as an adult to find her mother.

Fiona Sussman is a white woman who was born in South Africa and spent the first 25 years of her life there. Her father was a publisher who was active in the anti-apartheid movement, and her childhood home was full of other activists. She now lives in Auckland, Australia, where she works with her husband in a rural hospital. As she notes in this book’s introduction, she is aware of the problems of writing about people of different race and has drawn on a shared sense of humanity in daring to focus on them. I am very impressed with how well she is able to imagine and depict the Africans as well as the English in her writing. I see her as another example of how a person need not share a group’s biological heritage to write about them if one is sensitive, open and takes the trouble to listen to what others say.

Another Woman’s Daughter focuses on Miriam, the daughter of Celia, a black woman who is a live-in servant in a white suburb of Johannesburg at the start of the book in 1959. Their story is told in the alternating voices of Miriam and Celia. At first Miriam is too young to understand all that is happening around her. She experiences her mother and others primarily through her senses. Celia is aware she had “found a safe and comfortable corner” in a dangerous world and fears change. Michael and Rita Steiner, the white couple for whom she works are unable to have children of their own and are drawn to the bright, intelligent Miriam. When they decide to return to England, they want to adopt the child. Celia reluctantly agrees in hope that they can provide her with a better future than she could.

For Miriam, England and life with the Steiners is a bleak and lonely existence.. As a black in an all-white world, Miriam is lonely and feels unloved. While her adoptive father continues to treat her lovingly, his wife is brisk and dismissive of her. Promises which the Steiners had made to Celia to correspond and bring Miriam back to see her never get fulfilled. She is not even allowed to see her mother’s letters and loses all sense of her early years in Africa. Eventually Miriam finds a good friend whose loving family is from India and reaches out to her. Later she and young English man fall in love. But Miriam continues to feel her separateness in the English world. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Celia must face the crippling loss of her daughter and the difficulty of living with apartheid. She has problems finding decent work and is tortured because one of her sons has joined the resistance and is killed. Finally she is taken in by a white couple active against apartheid.

Twenty-five years after leaving South Africa, Miriam returns to search for the mother she has lost and the Africa out of which she was taken, a journey she feels she must take to understand who she is. Through friends, she meets Thabo, a black journalist idle because his newspaper is under surveillance. He takes her to stay with his family in Soweto and promises to be her guide in her search for her mother. With little information about her mother, the search is arduous. Miriam is forced to come face-to-face with apartheid and “tasted African life at its most raw.” On one hand, she exalts in being part of a society with others of her race, but on the other she is repeatedly humiliated by authorities because of her black face. She has “lived like an African, and laughed and cried like one.”

The search for her mother takes them all the way to the Cape a thousand miles from Johannesburg, through country that Miriam—and obviously Sussman—loves.

Africa wooed me, tantalizing my every sense. Its breath was sweet, its touch was warm, its beauty astounding. South Africa wrapped itself around me and held me.

Her time in Africa changes her, giving her a glimpse of who she is beyond her English persona. Yet she realizes that given her experiences she is neither completely African nor English but has something of both cultures in her makeup.

I thoroughly enjoyed Another Woman’s Daughter, and I learned a great deal about South Africa. Sussman tells a good story about a mother and daughter and writes with real grace, often becoming poetic in the process. Both her black and her white characters are varied and distinctive, never falling into stereotypes. She is adept at showing the horrors committed in apartheid while not damning all whites.

I recommend this book enthusiastically to all readers, especially those with interests in South Africa or in mother-daughter relationships or in complexity of inter-racial adoption.

Thanks for sending me a digital copy of this book to review.


September 18, 2015

I am sorry to have just dropped from sight for a couple of weeks.  Health problems have flared up as I adjust to my new living environment.  I love being around more people, but have not yet found the balance I need between encounters with live people, blogging, and rest.  I may  need some time to find a path that includes them all.  Don’t be surprised if my posting and commenting are irregular for a while.


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