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Love in a Headscarf, by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.

February 9, 2016

Love in a Headscarf, by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed.  Beacon Press (2010), 272 pages.

4 stars
A memoir about what it means to be an articulate young Muslim woman seeking to adapt to life in England, to marry, and to deepen her faith.

Shelina Janmohamed was born and raised in London. After graduating from Oxford, she has become a leading figure seeking to improve understanding of British Muslims. Devote and liberal, in this book and in her life, she explains her religious tradition to non-Muslims and works within her community to preserve the core of Islam while adapting to life in Britain. She has written for The Times, The Guardian, The National, The Muslim News and Emel magazine focusing on Islam and current affairs. She has traveled throughout the Middle East with the British Foreign and Commonwealth office and organized events for young British Muslims, such as the annual ‘Eid in the Square’ event which is held in Trafalgar Square. Her blog, Spirit21, has received a variety of awards.
Janmohamed does an excellent job of explaining how she and her family have negotiated the difficulties of being both Muslim and British. She is committed to wearing a headscarf as a matter of modesty and identity, but she also chooses to be fashionable and professional. For her family and community, the Islamic faith is something very different from that portrayed in western media. Rather than supporting terror, it is based in all-consuming love. It is also a faith that is compatible with other religions.   Repeatedly, Janmohamed identifies God as all loving, and all compassionate, a God of peace.

Practices around Muslim marriage and family are central to Janmohamed’s book. She states clearly that Islam is based on the fundamental equality of women and men and calls for Muslims to reconsider their contemporary gender roles.   Her faith instructs her that marriage is necessary; there is no option of remaining single or choosing a same-sex partner.  Among Muslims, union with the opposite sex is part of a person’s spiritual journey. Marriage is assumed to be a matter of family and community concern, rather than a personal choice. Love is assumed to take place after marriage, not before.

Janmohamed describes her own journey to find the right man which began when she was 19. At first she was part of the traditional visits of young men and their families to “view” her as a prospective bride. Because her family was moderate, she and the prospective husband were able to chat away from paternal involvement. Not a helpless victim, she was allowed to refuse a somewhat acceptable match. More visits ensued, and eventually she was allowed to meet carefully vetted men in public places to see if they were compatible. It was years, however, before she met the man she chose to marry. Her story could be instructive for other Muslim women seeking husbands who want advice on softening the demands of their tradition. However, I was troubled by her sense of the necessity of marriage and by the pattern of meeting men with the sole goal of deciding if a marriage was possible.

Love in a Headscarf is written in an upbeat manner even when dealing with serious matters like spiritual growth. I am glad to recommend it to both Muslim and non-Muslim readers.
For a more in-depth discussion of historical and contemporary Muslim women, I recommend the books of Leila Ahmed; A Border Passage (her autobiography), Women and Gender in Islam (her scholarly history), and A Quiet Revolution (her account of women’s roles in today’s Islam).  Links are to my reviews.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer

February 5, 2016

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, by Jon Krakauer.  Anchor (2016), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages

4 stars

A gritty account of a series of rapes that occurred in Missoula, Montana and the dismissive treatment of the women who accused their rapists.

In painful detail, Jon Krakauer recounts controversies that wrecked the college town of Missoula when several members of the beloved University of Montana football team were formally accused of rape. When the women tried to bring charges, various people in the justice system refused to take them seriously. The men claimed that they, not the women, were victims and gained extensive popular support. The court case came down to whether or not the women had given “consent.” The adversarial justice system simply added fuel to cultural wars.

What I found most impressive about Missoula was how Krakauer uses extensive quotations from the various actors in the events to show how those involved thought and felt.  As readers we see the deep pain the women suffered, and continued to suffer, in the face of those who were dismissive of them. Even more impressive was the evidence, some of it from court documents, of how little the men had considered the possibility that the women did not want their sexual advances and how those who should enforce the law assumed that the women were at fault for accusing their attackers.

All of the cases related in Missoula involved “acquaintance rape,” in which women are attacked by men whom they knew and even sometimes men whom they considered good friends. This type of rape is increasing in our society, especially in places like college campuses where young people are experimenting with new freedoms and confusion over acceptable behavior is prevalent.

Rape is an individual act involving a man’s violence against someone he believes he has the right to attack. Those who perform the act should be consistently punished. The victims should not be blamed. As Krakauer makes clear, men need to become sensitive and respect the wishes of sexual partners. But we as a society also have a responsibility to ensure that the people learn to honor each other rather than thoughtlessly harm them. All around us we see all kinds of violence condoned and even admired. Rape, especially acquaintance rape, is part of large pattern of hatred and abuse that must be rejected.  Men’s raping of women is possible in a society in which men learn that women and their needs are not important.

I read Missoula as part of an online reading group. I was impressed by the progress that women professors are making to help both female and male students become sensitive to issues relating to gender and violence.

Missoula is not as easy book to read or to consider, but it is an important one for all of us in understanding the reality for young women and men today. We all need to help everyone understand that rape, and dismissive violence against others, is not OK.

The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan.

January 27, 2016

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. Touchstone (2013).   371 pages.

5 stars — FAVORITE

Popular history at its best. Enjoyable, fact-filled history focusing on the variety of women and men whose secret work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, contributed to the first atomic bombs.

Denise Kiernan is not an academic historian, but a free-lance journalist and a writer for television. She is a gifted story-teller, not bound by academic conventions, but committed to extensive research, careful identification of sources, and fair, unbiased writing. Her account is grounded in the scientific and political narratives of the creation of the atomic bomb, but skillfully keeps those stories in the background. She brings to the book the ability to compile extensive information into a coherent narrative.

In The Girls of Atomic City, Kiernan gives detailed accounts of the lives of the famous and unknown people who did the actual work of refining the uranium for the first atomic bombs at the newly created community of Oak Ridge. The acquisition of land in an isolated Appalachian valley was the first step in the establishment, within only a couple of years, of a military “reservation” housing 75,000 people, many of them in quickly built housing. The priority was on achieving production goals as fast as possible. Absolute secrecy was enforced with each worker having the least possible knowledge to do a job. Husbands and wives were forbidden to share information about their work. With men abroad, women filled an unusual number of the jobs. Young rural women from the surrounding mountains were especially welcomed because they were believed to be docile and unquestioning. The army men involved at the site insured romances was abounded. As the “military reservation” became a town, social and psychological problems had to be addressed.

Kiernan has sent long hours in archives and interviewing those who worked and loved at Oak Ridge. In order to tell a coherent story out of her mass of information, she focuses on eight women who worked there, telling us the details of their days and their reaction to the strangeness of their situation. Two of the women were secretaries, two monitored the knobs and switches that facilitated the refining of the uranium, one was a scientist, one a statistician, and one, a black woman who did janitorial work. By including a black woman, Kiernan is able to describe the various ways in which segregation and discrimination continued to hamper African Americans at Oak Ridge. Unsurprisingly, they held the most menial jobs. Strict segregation was observed with African Americans kept out of the swimming pool and other recreational sites. When white couples were married, they could live together, but not blacks, who were crowded into the least acceptable “hutments.” A black man, hurt badly in an automobile accident, was given a radioactive injection because  scientists wanted to know the affect on human bodies.

Kiernan is full of praise for the women and men who worked at Oak Ridge, but she does not celebrate the creation and dropping of the first atomic bombs. She notes the debates over the bombs’ actual use, but makes no effort to establish blame or praise. Instead she describes the ambivalence that both scientists and ordinary workers felt about having created such a deadly weapon used to kill noncombatants.

I fully recommend The Girls at Atomic City to a wide range of readers including both casual and academic historians. Kiernan does an excellent job of helping us all understand how World War II affected Americans on the home front.

Almost Home

January 22, 2016

Almost Home: Cities and Other Places, by Githa Hariharan. Restless Books (2016), 304 pages. (First published in India, 2014).

4 stars

A creative collection of essays by an Indian woman combining her perspectives of diverse places, bits of their history, and the power relations that have shaped them.

Githa Hariharan is an author who is grounded in her Indian heritage yet intensely aware of what is happening around the entire globe. She has published highly regarded novels and non-fiction and worked as an editor. Traveling extensively, she probes into stories that usually go unnoticed and reassembles them in new forms. Always concerned with the social context within which individuals live, Hariharan writes incisively about the past and present. As she says on her website,

All my work looks at power politics in some way or the other. Both fiction and non-fiction have a thousand ways of giving us a new take on the dynamics of power relations.

Almost Home is one of the increasingly frequent books that do not fit in our traditional categories. It contains both fact and fiction, memoirs and travel writing, history and social/political analysis. Despite its unusual structure, it is easy to read and provides an enlarged understanding of places around the global and the forces that affect us all.

Frequently Hariharan has focused on what it means to have a home, or to have lost one’s home to forces beyond one’s control. She probes “the human costs of a home no longer home. Where is home when it is an occupied and brutalized place? Or torn apart by civil war? Or a place of prisons run by a dictatorship?” As the title of her book implies, home is an elusive quality in her own life. Although she now settled in Delhi, she has lived and visited all over the globe. She has had “too many homes” to feel she is “native” anywhere. Her book expresses people’s “need to reconstruct home — in words and in personal and political action – and affirm the multiplicity of the places they come from.”

As a small child, Hariharan lived in a close-knit Tamil community in Bombay. Her horizons expanded as her family moved into the larger city, to southern India, and to Manila. After time in New York, she returned to college in Bombay, where she discovered haiku and experienced Japan at a level she had missed when visiting there. After writing about these sites, she moves in a seemingly random fashion to other cities and regions which have touched her deeply. She compares Washington, D.C. to an ancient city in India in their love of monuments. She writes of Kashmiri residents less concerned with religious strife than with the tyrannical actions of the Indian army. In her words Medieval Spain comes to life as a cosmopolitan place where educated aristocratic women proclaimed their independence and a charm could be of either Fatima’s or Mariam’s hand.

Hariharan’s book is a perceptive and enjoyable exposure to voices and situations few of us have imagined. I recommend it highly to readers who delight in such adventures.

Thanks to Restless Books for providing me with a digital copy of this books to review.


January 19, 2016

Topical searches of my past blogs are always possible using my “Categories” and “Searching” functions.  Currently I am reworking my “Reading Suggestions” tab to add some short bibliographies about topics that particularly interest me.  When I create new lists, like this one, I will also post them there so that they can be found easily.   My particular favorites are starred.  Titles are linked to my reviews.



*The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell. A woman in her 80s reflects honestly and hopefully on her inner and outer worlds and on what it means to age.

*Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir, by Penelope Lively. Thoughts about aging, memory, and dealing with the past by an eighty-year-old author.

*Through the Dark Forest, by Carolyn Conger. Suggestions for women and men approaching death to consider their own past and make peace with it. The only book of this type I have found valuable.

*Tears in the Grass, by Lynda A. Archer. A compelling story about a 90-year old Cree woman living on the plains of Canada who enlists her daughter and granddaughter to help her find the child who was taken from her at birth after she was raped attending a reservation school.

*The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende. A novel by an accomplished author about an elderly woman in an idealized retirement community and those around her. May be shocking to some readers.

*All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West. A description of an aristocratic English woman in her 80s who steps out of established role when her husband dies. Set in the early 20th century and written by a young woman.

Poppy’s Progress and Poppy’s Return, by Pat Rossier. Two novels about a New Zealand lesbian about 50 caring for her dying father and making decisions about how she will age.

Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple. A gentle, domestic story of a woman in her 50s and 60s watching and helping her adult children.

Boundaries, by Elizabeth Nunez. A semi-autobiographical novel by a Caribbean American author about her relationship with her aging parents.

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively. A poignant novel about an elderly woman reviewing her life and her lover in Cairo during World War II.

The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell.

January 13, 2016

The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell.  New York: Knopf, 1968


A moving journal of a woman in her eighties pondering the inner and outer worlds she inhabits.

Florida Scott-Maxwell was born in 1888 in America, but moved to Scotland, her husband’s home, in her twenties when she married. While her children were young, she wrote in a variety of genres including suffrage statements and plays. Then she worked as a Jungian analyst for 25 years.  Her memoir is less an account of the events of her life than a meditation on the changes she has observed personally as she ages and as the attitudes of her society shifted. In her eighties, her arthritis interfered with her artistic projects. Even worse, she became too tired to enjoy conservation, which for her was “near the top of human pleasures.” Reading remained an enjoyment: “reading books long forgotten, with only the enlargement they once brought remembered.” She began to keep a notebook, writing down the questions which troubled her and then trying to answer them. While not a substitute for what she had lost, journaling “eased [her] crabbed heart.” The Measure of My Days is drawn from that notebook.

Although Scott-Maxwell believed that age leaves us “at variance with the times,” she remained eager to understand the world around her. In her notebook, she probed difficult, abstract issues, yet she wrote with simplicity and grace. Her book is full of questions we still need to consider seriously. The answers she suggests have merit, but she saw them as tentative. In her eyes we have broken down our old value structure without creating new ones. She veers from pessimism about our future to guarded optimism, leaving us as readers free to make our own decisions. Fifty years after her writing, her questions still seem necessary and relevant, perhaps because our societies have not found or created adequate answers to the issues she raises.

Writing in the turbulent 1960s, the culture Scott-Maxwell observed was changing dramatically. She welcomed the increasing tolerance and acceptance of what once was defined as evil, but saw people confused without the old certainties. Rather than assuming that evil could simply be erased, she advocated understanding it and integrating it into our thinking:

That evil is the inevitable half of good is may be the unacceptable truth that we are all taking in, and it could be the forerunner of a new balance.

For example, in her view, “Equality is necessary, yet it doesn’t destroy the need for inequality. Inequality entails resentment, envy, galling realization,” but we need people to admire and to trust. Worrying about the future she claimed:

Perhaps the forms of life that are passing should be mourned, and this may be the right role of age. . . I mourn that life is so incomprehensible, and for this confused age.

Having worked in the suffrage movement in her youth, Scott-Maxwell was concerned about gender. She felt herself to have been “lamed” by assumptions of women’s inferiority. For her, the problem was based in “Men’s glorification of female images like the Virgin Mary, but disparaging and dismissive of real women.” She asks “what relation can ordinary women have to this divine figure?” She gives her analysis of women’s problems:

It may be the contrast between the ideal and the real that makes so many women hate being women. The selfless, tireless one, the rich giver and the meek receiver, with life-giving milk from the breast, costing her nothing, is too, too much. Looked at in the grey light of daily living, the concept is the demand of the ravening child, and we cannot respond to such a claim in man or child.

We do not often live with the superior side of man—that is generally expressed in his work—but more habitually with his weak, tired, shallow side. . . It often seems to us our role and fate to deal with his inferiority and to hide it from him.

The only way she saw to resolve the problem was for both women and men to work together to correct such views.

At the heart of Scott-Maxwell’s journal is one of the most honest accounts aging that I have read. Her book is not depressing because she also carefully describes the benefits of aging and how she has managed to deal with its problems. Her book begins with an acknowledgment that aging is no one process:

We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high.

She realizes that numerous problems exist for the elderly who are:

Stretched too far… Little things have become big; nothing in us works well, our bodies have become unreliable. We have to make an effort to do the simplest things.”

Age forces us to deal with idleness, emptiness, not being needed, not able to do, helplessness just ahead perhaps.

This love and pain and energy are so strong while I am so weak, what do I do with them?

Like many of us Scott-Maxwell feared that death “will not come soon enough,” and that she will lose her independence. Yet she is not ready to die. “I do not know what I believe about death; if it exists then I burn with interest, if not—I am tired.”

As we age, however, we can learn to cope.  Scott-Maxwell liked “the comfortable amount of things about which we no longer need to bother.” We can put down our striving and accept that “There is nothing to do but wait, and listen to the emptiness which is often gentle.”

So one has ample time to face everything one has had, been, done; gather them all in: the things that came from the outside and those from the inside. We have time at last to make them truly ours.

The critical task of age is balance, a virtual tightrope of balance, keeping just well enough, just brave enough, just gay and interested and starkly honest enough to remain a sentient human being.

She calmed herself by doing small housekeeping tasks:

Order, cleanliness, seamlessness make a structure that is half support and half ritual, and if does not create, it maintains decency. I make my possessions appear at their best as they are my only companions.

Ultimately, however peace is possible.

Further on, go further on, one finds that one has arrived at a larger place still, a place of release. There one says ‘Age can seem a debacle, a rout of all one needs most, but that is not the whole truth. What of the part of us, the nameless boundless part who experiences the rout, the witness who saw so much go, who remains undaunted and knows with clear conviction that there is more to us than age?. . . If we have suffered defeat we are somewhere, somehow beyond the battle.”

A long life makes me feel nearer to truth, yet it won’t go into words, so how can I convey it? .. . If at the end of your life you only have yourself, it is much. Look and you will find.

Scott-Maxwell comes closer than most to putting her inexpressible experience into words. I enthusiastically recommend The Measure of My Days to all those who are ready to accept that we are all aging.

Thanks to my friend who loaned me this fine book.

The Seville Communion, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

January 11, 2016

The Seville Communion, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.  Mariner Books (2004),  375 pages.

A complicated mystery by a Spanish author set in Seville centered on the conflicts surrounding a small, ancient church which developers want to be abandoned so they can put the land to profitable use.

Arturo Perez-Revert is a prolific Spanish writer and journalist. His well-written novel combines suspense, moral dilemmas and a host of unique characters.

A highly skilled hacker manages to move through the Vatican’s security and put a message about a church in Seville onto the Pope’s computer, a church in danger where people have mysteriously died. Father Quart, a member of the Vatican’s investigation unit, is sent to assess the situations. Quart is an unusually handsome priest with a cool demeanor. When he arrives in Seville, he finds himself in the midst of competing factions. On one hand there is priest of the dilapidated church, an old man devoted to the old Roman Catholic traditions. Among his followers are others who love the church; his assistant, a nun who is repairing the church, and a duchess and her beautiful daughter. Opposing them are bankers who envision making high profits if the church is destroyed, among them the husband whom the beautiful daughter has rejected. Working under them are a trio of strange and incompetent drifters. Although committed to staying neutral, Father Quart is drawn into their struggles as he seeks to find what has happened and what will happen to the church.

This book was a gift and outside my usual reading choices. At times I struggled with the complicated plot lines and my own lack of familiarity with Spanish names and Roman Catholic terminology. The map, helpfully included, never seemed to have the places mentioned in the text. Yet I enjoyed the book’s surprises, its ironic humor, and the vivid pictures it presented of Seville. I appreciated the questions raised about competing loyalties and whether virtue should be sacrificed out of devotion to a cause or a person.

I recommend this book to mystery lovers who enjoy suspense, competing plot lines, and ethical quandaries.


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