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In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende.

October 16, 2017

<In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende.

4 stars

Another new novel by a popular and important Chilean American woman.

In the 1980s, Isabel Allende burst on the scene with her House of the Spirits. She was among the first of many global women to expand American women’s understanding of what life was like for women beyond our provincial boundaries.  In doing so, she also introduced us to “magical realism,” a style of writing that incorporates spiritual or magical elements.  Now an American citizen, she has published many novels and won many awards.  Allende continues to writes today when she is in her seventies, sometimes dealing with issues of aging and dying.

In the Midst of Winter is set in New York where three individuals come together on an unlikely adventure.  Richard is the Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University.  He is a reserved man, full of guilt over his past.  Lucia teaches in his program and lives in his basement.  Originally from Chile, she has come to terms with her own past.  Evelyn is a young undocumented woman from Guatemala who works as a nanny and brings complications into the lives of the other two.

I enjoyed this book, but I felt it lacked the lively energy I have come to expect from Allende.  Woven into the memories of the two women, however, was the Allende I had remembered.  Each of the characters recalls what had happened in their past. Lucia tells of the takeover of the Chilean government and the killing of its president, a man who was related to Allende. Evelyn remembers the period when violence was widespread in Guatemala.

I gladly recommend this book to all.  It is good, if not Allende’s best.  Reading it, I was inspired to reread House of the Spirits, which I also enjoyed.

The Tower of the Antilles, by Achy Obejas

October 9, 2017

tower of the Antilles
The Tower of the Antilles,
by Achy Obejas
Brooklyn: Akashic Books, 2017.  Forthcoming.

3 stars

An intense and sensual collection of short stories about Cubans and Cuban Americans by a woman who has lived her own version of that narrative.

Achy Obejas was born in Cuba in 1956.  When she was six she came with her parents to Indiana where she grew up. She lived there long enough to realize that her lesbianism was viewed negatively.  She worked in Chicago as a journalist and now lives in Oakland, California, where she currently teaches creative writing at Mills College as a Distinguished Visiting Writer.  She has previously published award-winning poetry and stories. Her writing has focused on her sexuality and her Cuban identity.  In an interview she stated that she is “interested in both Cuba as a real place and as a kind of metaphor for power and for powerlessness, for private and public identity.”  She says that, while Americans tend to think about their own agency, Cubans are more likely to attribute events to fate or to God.  Such ideas shape her writing.

The actual stories in this collection include some  centering on Cuba itself and others featuring Cuban Americans.  The characters and their actions seemed strange to me.  Sexuality for both lesbians and gay men is described very explicitly.

This is probably a book that other readers will like more than I did, but that says more about me than her writing ability.

Lockdown, by Laurie R. King.

July 19, 2017

LockdownLockdown, by Laurie R. King. Random House Publishing Group, 2017.
5 stars

A suspenseful thriller set in a middle school struggling to move beyond its many problems.

Laurie King is prolific and deservedly popular writer of books full of mysteries and impending danger and thoughtful psychological exploration of individuals caught up in them.  Her early books featured a woman detective in San Francisco.  Then she began a quirky series about Mary Russell, a scholarly young woman who becomes acquainted with Sherlock Holmes, marries him and joins him in his detection. In addition she has written several stand-alone thrillers, some of them set in dangerous situations that reflect very contemporary problems.

Lockdown is set in and around Guadalupe, a troubled middle school in a small town near the California coast.  Linda, the new principal, is trying to create a sustainable community for her students and their families, but the murder of one child and the disappearance of another haunt the school.  The students and other adults involved with them each have their own problems, but with the approach of the school’s Career Day, their paths become interwoven.  All become threatened.

Suspense is palatable throughout the book, but story is never grim or depressing.  Instead we get to see how a variety of individuals react under increasing pressure.  King manages to braid together each of their narratives without diluting any of them. And we are left with some major questions unanswered.  We have a pinpoint view of how  innocence and evil overlap and how children get pulled into violence.  I loved the ending.

I strongly recommend this book, even for those who do not usually read mysteries or suspense.

“Departure”, by Kim Scott; “Our Hero, Our Brother”, by Liz Hayden.

July 11, 2017

“Departure”, by Kim Scott; “Our Hero, Our Brother”, by Liz HaydenReview of Australian Fiction 15: 4.

For Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week

Review of Australian Fiction presents digital copies of short stories pairing a well-known author and a less famous one.  Kim Scott, a prominent Indigenous Australian writer, has published several novels, including the prize-winning That Dead Man Walking. Here a story of his appears with one by Liz Hayden, about whom I could not find information online.  Both stories deal with young Indigenous adolescents are taken by sinister,  Indigenous captors.

In Scott’s story Tilly, dressed in her school uniform and caught up in her music, rides a bus to visit her Indigenous father.  When she gets off the bus she is met and taken ominous men.  In Hayden’s story Cleon, an adopted boy is taken off the street and killed.

The mood of both stories is grim and threatening.  Both reveal innocence and safety lost.  Hayden’s story is well-written, but Scott’s simply has more punch.  I was not sure if she benefited by being presented with him.  His sparse tale left me with a host of unnamed fears.  He uses silence to wonderful effect.  What we don’t know is always the worst thing possible.  Both stories also left me aware of how I dislike short stories.  I wanted disparately to be told what was happening and why.

Violence against Indigenous Women, by Allison Hargreaves.

July 9, 2017

Violence against Indigenous WomenViolence against Indigenous Women, by Allison Hargreaves.  Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University, 2017.  Indigenous Studies Series.  FORTHCOMING.

3 stars

An account which focuses on the present-day Indigenous and non-Indigenous responses to the numerous missing and murdered Canadian First Nation women which links these tragedies to colonial racism and sexism.

Allison Hargreaves is on the faculty of the University of British Columbia where she teaches Indigenous literature.  I could not find whether or not she herself is Indigenous. She is one of a group of Canadian scholars interested in the ways in which Indigenous people share a world view that differ dramatically and in positive ways with the culture of settler societies that colonized them.  Surprisingly for an American like myself, such scholars receive funding and resources from the Canadian government. I applaud their effort and am interested in their findings, but I find this book and others like it overly heavy and abstract—which seems to me to detract from the content of the studies.

Hargreaves starts from the idea that colonialism introduced degrading attitudes and activities that encouraged the debasement of Indigenous women.  Despite decades of trying to change that pattern, these colonial attitudes remain and still need to be addressed.  But while the government is willing to act to stop the violence against women, it and the research it conducts often repeat the problem by failing to adapt its methodology to the Indigenous worldview.  Hargreaves goes on to dissect recent government sponsored programs as well as films and literature, analyzing them for the ways in which they support or reject fundamental Indigenous values.

My response to this book and others which take similar approaches is mixed and troubling.  My sympathy is fundamentally with the Indigenous people, especially the Indigenous women.  I see the ways settler colonization upset their lives, but I am not willing to assume that it was only villain.  I agree with the Indigenous values being expressed here more than those of my own settler-initiated society.  But I don’t like the implication in this book that the way forward is revenge by the Indigenous women.  Beside, the technical, elitist language leaves me cold and annoyed.  I don’t feel I gain anything from reading it.  For met he best parts of the book were the descriptions of books and films by Indigenous women.

In recent years I have deliberately chosen to read a number of books by Indigenous women from various parts of the globe.  From them I have taken in a valuable critique of Euro-American values and institutions.  Even more important, I feel I have been exposed to a set of values different but perhaps more sustainable than those which dominate my society.  I am grateful for their insights.  I find literature and storytelling, rather than theory, more useful in understanding my society’s past and present.  The book that has moved me furthest on this journey is Celica’s Song, by Lee Marcel, a book than immersed me in Canadian Indigenous culture.

Are there books or articles out there that discuss Indigenous culture and values without this horrid theoretical approach?  I would welcome some recommendations.

The Trouble with Illness, Julia Shapiro.

July 6, 2017

the-trouble with illnessThe Trouble with Illness:  The Effects of Illness and Increasing Disability on Relationships. Julia Shapiro.  London: Jessica Kingsley, 2017.

3 stars

An informative account of how illness and physical losses disrupt our internal beliefs and our relationships with others.

Julia Shapiro has had a 35-year career as a psychological counselor in London.  She currently works with people who have suffered neurological losses.  This book synthesizes and expands several other books she has written on topics which include children’s’ responses to their own illnesses and those of their parents.

A strength of Shapiro’s new book is her determination to point out ways in which major physical problems often create emotional problems that need to be addressed as well as more obvious medical ones.  For a patient, the family, or a professional to deny that people change in the face of the restrictions of physical limitations is a problem.  Using abundant quotations and examples, Shapiro describes a wide variety of issues which appear as individuals and those close to them try to deal with their grief, pain, and other distress and limitations.  While at one level some of these may seem obvious, these are issues that family, friends and professional may easily overlook.  At the very least, Shapiro assures patients and care-givers that they are not alone.

Written for a range of readers, The Trouble with Illness does not fit neatly into the abundance of books designed to help people deal with their emotions. Thankfully Shapiro is not among those overly optimistic writers who claim to resolve all your problems if you just follow their rules.  She is very aware that illness and emotional distress does not always get better. People die.  She offers information that may help in that process.

Shapiro’s approach grows out of the psychoanalytical tradition of Melanie Klein, but this book is not about theory.  She offers one chapter on the theoretical basis for her counseling, but she suggests that non-theoretical readers simply skip it and move on to her more patient-centered writings.  In general, she points to the need for long-term psychological therapy rather than trying to offer it in a book.

I applaud Shapiro for addressing the issues she raises with such honesty. Those suffering from the psychological shifts that illness can cause and those who care for them may find that her book resonates.  Professionals of various sorts will broaden their awareness.  The Trouble with Illness deliberately raises new questions rather than answers.


Hap and Hazard and the End of the World, by Diane DeSanders.

July 1, 2017

hap and hazard and the End of the World
Hap and Hazard and the End of the World, by Diane DeSanders. 
New York: Bellevue Press, 2018. FORTHCOMING

5 stars

A moving novel narrated by a young girl growing up in and around Dallas after World War II and recounting the fears and confusions adults all bring from their childhoods.

Diane DeSanders is a fifth generation Texan who writes with great awareness about what Texas was like immediately after World War II, at least for some members of successful Dallas families. She has spent much of her life teaching history and doing theatre, and this is her first novel.  Her sensitive power of observation makes it an enjoyable and insightful book.

The story is told through a young, insecure girl just starting school when her father returns from the war crippled both physically and psychologically.  The girl loses her monopoly on her mother’s love, and soon two younger siblings appear.  Both sets of grandparents are comfortably well off, but for the narrator the world seems fragile.  She doesn’t know whether or not to believe in either Santa Claus or God. Each chapter relates a separate incident, building to an understanding of why the girl feels so unworthy and unwanted. One is about Hap and Hazard, the family dogs, and “the end of the world” hovers in narrator’s stories throughout the book.

The genius of DeSanders’ writing is the way in which she brings adult readers into the remembrance of childhood vulnerability that continues to haunt us all.  Her words are sparse, often understate, and powerful.  For a sample of the story, go to

I didn’t grow up in Dallas, but across the Red River in Southern Oklahoma. Yet I recognized the places and the attitudes in this book.  Perhaps most of all I belong to the same generation of women who grew up in the shadow of war, not directly hurt like many were, but shaped by it anyway.  DeSaunders captures childhood in the shadow of war amazingly well.

The Bellevue Press which published this book is a small publisher associated with the NYC Medical School.  They focus on books that bring together the humanities and sciences.  Perhaps they chose to publish this book because of clarity and beauty with which it takes us into the mind of a child in such significant manner.

I strongly recommend this book.