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Slay the Dragon, by Laura Zubulake.

May 21, 2018

Everyday PeopleSlay the Dragon, by Laura Zubulake.  IndieReader In-store, 2018.

4 stars

A political story about a young man in a Latin American country torn by his desire to be personally honorable while helping those who were poverty-stricken.

Laura Zubulake worked on Wall Street for many years.  When she failed to get a raise that she believed she had earned, she sued her company.  In the process of making her case, she and her lawyer relied on emails that her company claimed no longer existed.  In the end, Zubulake was able to negotiate a favorable settlement with her company.  More importantly her case became a significant landmark determining the ways in which companies and lawyers are responsible for searching, preserving, and management of electronic records.  She has published her account of her case in her Zubulake’s e-Discovery: The Untold Story of my Quest for Justice. She has also published The Complete Guide to Convertible Securities Worldwide.

Slay the Dragon, Zubulake’s debut novel, reflects the author’s concern for justice and fair play. Her main character is Caesar; a man born in a poor village who was able to use his soccer skills and good looks to move into a position of power in an imaginary Latin American country.  His idealism sets him apart from the corruption and violence of those around him, in government and without. The situation in which he works is complex, however, and he is forced to choose between what he considers honorable and what well help those in need.

Zubulake has written a novel that is both exciting and thought-provoking. She begins her book with a series of short accounts about people with no obvious connections and builds her story to connect them. The book is set in public sphere, and appropriately the country she creates, about men in power.  Women and families are minor, but positively portrayed.  Some readers may find Slay the Dragon, too harsh and violent.  I recommend it to readers interested in looking squarely at the darkness of our world and not be judgmental.

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor, by Kelly J. Baker.

May 17, 2018

Everyday People

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor, by Kelly J. Baker. Blue Crow, 2018.

4 stars

Essays on the problems of higher education, especially the refusal to respect women and the shift away from tenured faculty.

Kelly Baker has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, edits the journal Women in High Education, and publishes articles in major newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times.  Her area of scholarly expertise is the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and zombies; she has published academic books on those topics.   After Baker received her Ph.D. in 2008, she failed to obtain the tenure-track position that she was trained to hold. She taught in one-year contract positions before leaving academia.  Her own experience and her current job give her an important perspective on what it means to teach and work as a woman in higher education.

Some of the essays in Sexism Ed are essays that Baker has written and published elsewhere. The first two sections of the books include articles she has written for the journal she edits.  Here she writes with clarity and authority about the multitude of ways that women in higher education continue to be treated as second-class citizens in terms of hiring and promotion and lack of respect for their expertise and scholarship.  She uses both statistical analysis and personal accounts in ways that startle readers into approaching problems in new ways.  At time,s she presents and acknowledges what other scholars and thinkers have said. Sexism, especially toward female faculty, is the core of the first section.  Related problems facing universities are the primary focus of the second section. A particular concern in both sections is the decline in the numbers tenured faculty with academic freedom and economic security along with the growing reliance of adjuncts and lecturers who teach on short term contracts and lack such advantages. Unsurprisingly, women remain a minority of tenured faculty and a majority of contingent, contract teachers.  What is different about Baker’s analysis is that she looks at all those who teach at universities as laborers.  She urges tenured faculty to face the threats to the continuation of tenure and admit the ways that they depend on contract teaching for their own privileges.  Baker urges them to consider the worlds of their untenured colleagues and reach across the gulf that divides them.  Her position is more radical than many of those who bemoan the decline of tenure.

The last section of the book builds on the previous analysis and speaks in more personal, more moving ways about issues of gender, especially around the real and perceived tensions between motherhood and academic commitment.  Mothers are less likely than other women to get academic jobs, but for Baker, being a mother is key to who she is.  Discussing Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, Baker also writes in moving words about how she holds on to hope, because we can never know for sure what the future will bring. Perhaps by doing our own small part to bring about positive change, we can affect the outcome.  In writing about her own experience and feelings, Baker touches what some of us, male as well as female, know but try to forget.

Much of what Baker describes is what we were talking about as women teaching and seeking to teach in the 1980s and 1990s.  In some cases her book felt repetitive.  Yet Baker is a different generation of feminists in a different academic world.  Building on some of the gains we made, she can be more rebellious than we could.  She has been hurt for trying to be something other than the accepted image of college professor that might, or might not, have gotten her tenure.  Instead she adapted and created ways that she may be more seen and heard than those who stand in front of college classrooms.  I laud what she is doing and saying.  I recommend it to young women in American universities today.

Quiver: A Novel, by Julia Watts.

May 12, 2018

Quiver: A Novel, by Julia Watts.  Ingram Publisher Service, 2018.

A novel about the friendship of two unlikely teenage girls, one whose family is fiercely evangelical and patriarchal and the other whose family supports her “gender fluid” identity.

Julia Watts is a native of Appalachia and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.  She has written over a dozen adult and young adult novels, often dealing with LBGT individuals living in the conservative rural and small towns of the region.  Her books have received the Lambda Literary awards, signifying their supportive portrayal of lesbians. She teaches in local colleges and is recognized as a significant writer in east Tennessee.

Libby is the oldest child of parents who belong to the Quiverful religious sect which follows a rigid lifestyle of male dominance, numerous children, and extreme isolation from the “sinful” external world. Her mother is pregnant with her seventh child, and Libby’s life consists of taking care of younger siblings.  When a new family moves into an empty house nearby, Libby makes friends with Zo, a girl about her age. Zo’s family is very progressive, and at first the two families seem compatible.  Both girls struggle to understand the other, and Libby begins to recognize that her father is not as perfect and godlike as he claims. The rigidity of both fathers forces the girls apart until an emergency interrupts their lives.

By making issues personal rather than ideological, Watts presents an example of the cultural clash present in America today. Then she goes on to describe how the gap between us can be bridged and the difficulties coming together bring.  This is a hopeful book, at times perhaps, overly hopeful perhaps.

This book seems aimed at high-school-age readers, but those of us outside that category can profit from reading it.  I recommend Quiver to various readers who seek possible bridges across the divides in our society.

Training School for Negro Girls, by Camille Acker.

May 9, 2018

Training School for Negro GirlsTraining School for Negro Girls, by Camille Acker.  Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2018.

4 stars

Powerful, thematically-connected short stories about black middle-class girls and women in Washington, D.C., playing by the rules and finding they don’t get the rewards they expected.

Camille Acker was born in Maryland and grew up in Washington, D.C.  She graduated with honors from Howard and earned her M.F.A. at the University of New Mexico.  For more than fifteen years, she has worked in a wide range of positions in publishing, always pushing to bring diversity to more people. She created the website, The Spinsters Union, and worked with other non-profit and educational groups.  Now a freelance writer, she lives in Chicago.

In the title of her book, Acker refers to Nannie Burroughs, the important African American leader founder of the first training school in Washington, D.C. for black girls and women in 1907.  Burroughs was  active in a large, movement of the early twentieth century to train blacks in the rules of society so that they would “be safe and free.”  The women in Acker’s stories find, however, that  knowing and obeying the rules was never enough to insure safety and freedom, much less dreams.  Acker depicts women of different ages and decades from different parts of the city, but in her stories all the women discover the rules shifting beneath their feet.

Acker writes strong, clear narratives that seem simple and unconnected from each other, but she subtly composes a larger story of the limitations and frustrations of the women and girls she describes.  She sympathizes with them at the same time she critiques their decisions.  Rather than depicting them as either victims or figures of success, she captures the contradictions of their lives.  Acker does not blame the women or identify the oppressors. She simply describes what it feels like to devote your life to dreams that fail you.

No one needs to be a black middle-class woman in Washington to feel betrayed by the rules you were taught would bring you fulfillment.  Acker’s stories hit me strongly with a lesson I have faced again and again.  I strongly recommend this book.

Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver’s Guide …, by Loren Gelberg-Goff.

May 4, 2018

Take Back Your Life
Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver’s Guide to Finding Freedom in the Midst of Overwhelm, by Loren Gelberg-Goff.  Indie Reader In-store, Feb. 2018.

3 stars

A social worker offers advice for caregivers whom she claims should focus on their own needs rather than becoming overwhelmed with the needs of another.

Loren Gelberg-Goff is a licensed clinical social worker, and her book reflects the views that are predominant in the therapeutic community.  She has self-published this book.  Her advice to caregivers centers on the need for them to learn how to care for themselves in the face of overwhelming demands on their time, energy and identity.  She writes passionately about the dangers of giving too much and offers concepts, worksheets, and exercises designed to help caregivers protect themselves.  Her ideas are mainstream ideas rather than anything new or radical, although they may seem radical to those who like being martyrs.

I am all too aware of just how impossible the role of caregiver can be, especially for those caring for a loved one.  Gelberg-Goff’s particular suggestions seem good ones to consider, at least.   I hope that those who have not learned to care for themselves will find this book useful.  But I am troubled by this book, not so much because of its content, but because of the perspective it puts forth.  Americans have learned that taking take of one’s self is the highest good.  We are told to be self-sufficient individuals rather than to act for the common good.  But many of us are beginning to understand that the problems with our exclusive focus on individuals is inadequate and need to be tempered with a commitment to each ther. Our society today is full of examples of the dangers of unfettered individualism.

Recently, I read and reviewed another book directed primarily to caregivers, Ann Stearns, Redefining Aging, which I found much more insightful than this one.  Stearns does not disagree with the particulars which Gelberg-Golf advises, but she suggests viewing the very real problems from a broader perspective which seeks to integrate the needs of both caregiver and sufferer.   She points out that because our society does not value the work of caregivers so those doing the work need to recognize for themselves its worth.  Some caregivers may find meaning in religion, or long-lasting love for the one for whom they are caring.  Others may see the value in the sheer need for tasks that may seem to be drudgery. Respect for the one under your care is also vital for self-respect, even if he or she is slipping into unappreciative or hateful behavior.  Stearns suggests that there are more possibilities for finding “win-win” solutions than we have even considered.  In caregiving, as in parenting, we need to learn to care for ourselves at the same time we need to care for others.  The risks of under or over involvement are present in both situations.  She never claims that good solutions are always possible, and the acceptance of that fact by caregivers is essential.

While Take Back Your Life has some usefulness, I cannot recommend it over Redefining Aging.  The titles of the two books make the differences between them abundantly clear.  I am a firm believer that aging needs to be redefined. In fact, families, friends, and the whole nation need to come up with affordable solutions to the impossible demands of caregiving that do not pit the caretakers against those needing care.

Death at Whitewater Church, by Andrea Carter.

April 21, 2018

Death at Whitewater Church

Death at Whitewater Church: An Inishowen Mystery, by Andrea Carter. Florida: Oceanview Publishing, 2018.

4 stars

An interesting  mystery set on the northern coast of Ireland.

Andrea Carter earned her law degree in Dublin, and returned there to practice law.  Like her main character, Andrea Carter has lived and worked for a time as a solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula, Co Donegal.   Death at Whitewater Church is the first of her series featuring the Irish coastland.  Others in the series are Treacherous Strand and The Well of Ice.

Benedicta O’Keeffe, known as Ben, is the central character in the Inishowen mysteries. A personable individual, she carries her own painful past that sometimes intrude on her life.  As a rural lawyer she is involved with several families in the fictitious coastal village of Glendara.  When a body is found in a deserted church that is up sale, she happens to be present.  The whole village tries to help solve the questions about the identity of the body and the circumstances of his death. A web of interesting characters creates a complex web of speculation.  The moving accounts of the rugged Irish landscape grace the book.

Carter 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 but couldn’t.” She claims that Ben O’Keefe was originally a braver and more reckless version of herself.  As she wrote, however, she gained some distance on both the character and place, and they began to develop on their own.  The result was first one novel and now a series set in Donegal.

I recommend the Whitewater Church to those who enjoy mysteries that focus on place and people, and I look forward to finding the other volumes of Carter’s series.

The Afghan Wife. Cindy Davis.

April 17, 2018

The Afghan Wife

The Afghan Wife, by Cindy Davis. Odyssey Books, 2017

3 stars

A predictable story of violence and romance set in the chaos of the Iranian Revolution.

Cindy Davis was born in the United Kingdom and then moved with her family to Australia.  She has worked at various jobs, including two-years of teaching and acting as a tour guide in Turkey.  Her long-term interest in the Middle East is revealed in the research she has done for this, her first novel.

Zahra is an Afghan woman, married to a very abusive husband.  For some mysterious reason, her cousin, Firzun, involves her, her husband, and her son in an escape to Iran.   After the death of her husband, Zahra distrusts Firzun.  Is he a freedom fighter, a drug smuggler, or both?   Unsure of her future, Zahra takes a job as a companion of an elderly woman, the grandmother of Karim, a dashing young man she had met briefly and fallen in love with in the past.  But the path of love is never easy.

Davis keeps the plot moving and inserts some interesting aspects of her characters. For example, I was interested in how intensely guilty and humiliated Zahra was about the way her husband beat her.  She seems to believe that his violence was her fault.  That is an interesting observation about how some women react to abuse. But generally the characters in the book are not well-developed, and the plot hinges on the power of love at first sight rather than any other reasons for attraction. Overall this is a story of a helpless woman saved by a rich and handsome man.

This is not the kind of book that I usually read.  Perhaps my impatience with it has more to do with the limitations of the genre rather than Davis’s writing.