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Lady at the Window: The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich.  Robert Waldron. 

April 5, 2020

Lady at the Window
Lady at the Window: The Lost Journal of Julian of Norwich : A Novella.  Robert Waldron.  Paraclete Fiction, 2020.

Forthcoming: April 2020.

3 stars

An imaginary journal kept by medieval anchoress during the last Holy Week of her life expressing her longing for a sense of the presence of God and believing that “All will be well.”

Robert Waldron is a Roman Catholic author who has written about the life and thought of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouman, several novels, and articles on modern spirituality.  He has received awards from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the National Press Association, and the Catholic Press Association.  He was born and raised in Boston where he still lives and continues to teach at the Boston Latin School.

Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) was English mystic and anchoress.  In her later years she lived in a tiny cell attached to the church of Saint Julian in Norwich England.  One of her small windows looked out on the church itself, from which she observed the rituals that sustained her, and the other allowed her to see and nurture individuals in need of her nurture and guidance.  She is known from her book The Revelations of Divine Love, or her Shewings, which she wrote in the 1370s and which was probably the first book written in England by a woman.  Dame Julian has become well known to contemporary Christians for her depiction of a God who is full of nurture, as Waldron describes in his afterword.

Robert Waldon’s book recreates Julian’s thoughts and feelings in a fictional journal of hers, which had allegedly been kept secret and recently found and shared.  It is intended to follow her through the last Holy Week of her life and includes themes and images from her earlier life.  She mulls over the problems that others bring to her and the absence of the intense feeling of God’s presence that had been present in other periods of her life.  Yet the belief she holds most closely and shares with others is that, despite human sinfulness and pain, God is nurturing, not wrathful.    At times she uses female imagery of “Mother Jesus” to convey this idea.  In his “Afterword,” Waldron discusses the importance of such ideas in our world today.

I am no expert on Julian or her ideas.  I cannot judge the accuracy of Waldron’s depiction.  I do know something of general outlines of Julian’s beliefs. Some of her distinctive phrases and images came back to me as I read.  I suspect that these originated in her earlier Shewing, but his depiction of her marriage and motherhood before she became an anchorite is totally imaginary.  At times I wondered what ideas that Waldron ascribed to Julian were hers and what they shaded into the writings of current theologians that Waldron admires.  I suspect that Julian suggested and foreshadowed current discussions, for example of nurturing, female images of God, but perhaps she didn’t development them as much as Waldron does.  I was also bothered by the occasional use of medieval spellings of common words like sinne, sunn, and lyking which simply interrupted my focus on Julian.

But my complaints are minor.  I am glad to have Julian available to additional readers, and I suspect this book will fulfill that goal.  Those readers most likely to appreciate Lady at the Window will be those reading it as a devotional book or one that simply expands their ways of thinking about their faith.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

March 30, 2020

The Water Dancer
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Random House, 2019.

5 stars

A brilliant historical novel about slavery and escape by a young African American man writing in the tradition of Toni Morrison.

The Water Dancer is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first novel , but he has already achieved attention for his non-fictional books about his experiences as a black man and his regular, more varied, articles in the Atlantic Monthly.  He is a recipient of a MacArthur Award and appears regularly in the media.  Born in New York City, he attended school for gifted students before attending Howard University where his father, a former Black Panther, worked as librarian.

Coates writing is simple and a joy to read.  It reminds me of how mundane most of what I read really is. He combines a sheer skill with words with sensitive insights.  Detailed and precise, it is often lyric al and beautiful.  Coates is capable of conveying both joy and inexplicable suffering. With a handful of exceptions, his characters are well-developed and understandable.  Especially notable is his depiction of strong women and their struggles to maintain their identity in slavery and romance.

The Water Dancer is narrated by Hiram Walker, a slave who comes of age in the book.  Hiram is the son of a slave woman and her white master, a man whom Hiram refers to consistently as his father although he not treated as a son.  His mother has been sold away too early in his life to remember her, and he is raised by a grim, older woman in the slave community.  His intelligence and phenomenal memory is recognized early, and he is moved to “his father’s house.”  Already angry about his enslavement, he tries to run away and gets “drafted” by a militant group fighting slavery.  After a time among freed blacks in Philadelphia, he returns to unfinished business back in Virginia.

Part of the plot, and why Hiram is valued by different characters, is because he has superhuman power.  This power is vague magical realism, but the specific ability to move one’s self and others across long distances.  African who walked, or flew, from the shores of America back to Africa were said to have such as did Harriet Tubman, the only historical character in The Water Dancer.  This was a difficult and demanding power, and Hiram was slow to understand and learn to use it.

As an historian, I was amazed by the way in which Coates created a picture of slavery in The Water Dancer which brings together the best accounts of scholars and slave narrators about the institution and those held by its bonds.  He must have read deeply in the literature of ex-slaves and applied his own sensitivity as a contemporary black man to display why freedom was such a critical drive for slaves.

I found Coates’s depiction of those violently opposed to slavery more complex and troubling. Here he departs from the myth and historical reality of the underground railroad where ordinary people assisted refugees and gave them food and shelter.  Instead he reveals an uglier picture of a hierarchical organization willing to cause suffering even among its own and demanding absolute obedience.  The tensions within the group are evident as blacks fight against blacks. Here Coates seems to be revealing his views about the need for those fighting for justice to be willing to be “dirty and not pure,” part of his own alliance with Malcom X’s readiness to use violence in contrast to Martin Luther King’s non-violence resistance.

In Philadelphia, however, Hiram finds a new family of freemen and women able to love each other and act for them.  He returns to Virginia, making his peace with working at the edges of the conformity and violence of the Underground.

Slave Dancer is an important novel, not just for blacks and those interested in what slavery was like in America.   It has implications for those of us who experience less literal forms of slavery and for the questions of using our past for both good and evil.  Most of all, Coates understands, and writes about, the need for stories and remembering for all of us.

If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo. 

March 25, 2020

If I Was Your GirlIf I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo.  Flatiron Books, 2016.

4 stars

A thoughtful novel about a transgender teenager adapting to a new school and a new identity.

Meredith Russo is herself a young trans woman, originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Although she has published elsewhere, this is her first novel.  It was widely received and won several awards, especially for its portrayal of trans teenagers.

In the book, Andrew has recently transitioned into Amanda.  She goes to live with her alienated father and attend high school in the small town where he lives.  Readers share her doubts and dilemmas, as well as her newly found joys.  She is accepted in a circle of girls and has a gentle and accepting boyfriend whom she fears to tell about her past.  Not all goes well, but Russo has commented that she wanted to write a positive book about adolescence transgender individuals.  She has certainly succeeded.

I gladly recommend If I Was Your Girl.  It is presumably written for young adults who may be transgender or have friends who are, but the book is critical for all of us.  It normalizes what it means to be transgender and, for those of us who are older, gives us a glimpse into the experiences of the next generation.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City, by Amy Stanley.

March 22, 2020

Stranger in the Shogun's CityStranger in the Shogun’s City, by Amy Stanley.  Simon and Schuster, 2020.

Forthcoming July 2020

5 stars

A fascinating history tracing a restless Japanese woman who lived in the early 19th century and experienced her nation’s changing economy and social practices.

Amy Stanley is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. Her Ph.D. is from Harvard, and she teaches Japanese History and Gender History at Northwestern University. Her books and articles have focused on women in Early Modern Japan (1600-1868).  Placing her subjects in global context, she has written about prostitution, adultery, geishas, and maidservants. She is a careful scholar who writes for both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences.

The central figure in Stanley’s new book is Tsuneno who grew up in an established family in northern Japan.  A restless and abrasive woman, she was divorced three times before running away to the city of Edo.  She struggled to find work and the means of survival in the city which at the time was transforming itself into the modern city of Tokyo. Although she was an obscure figure when she was alive, her letters to and from her family happen to have been preserved.  Through extensive research, Stanley has been able to flesh out her life and the world in which she lived. In the process she gives us a detailed picture of the lower classes in the city that was becoming modern and linked to the rest of the globe.

I was most impressed by Stanley’s ability to blend the biography of one little known woman with the larger story of globalization that transformed Edo/Tokyo during her lifetime.  In addition, Stanley’s deep knowledge of Japanese history makes it possible for her to describe in detail the daily life of people living through major events. Such details of the feel and texture of a time and place seldom make it into traditional histories, particularly histories of the “ordinary people.”  Stanley has done extensive research which she documents at the end of the book, but notes do not interrupt her text.  She writes as a storyteller, not an academic proving her point.  Her approach makes her book a delightful introduction to Japanese history.  I came away from this book with a greatly expanded understanding of the opening of global trade during her character’s life.

I strongly recommend Stranger in the Shogun’s City to academic and non-academic alike.  It will delight them as well as enlarging their understanding of a world we share.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis.

March 19, 2020

The Lions of Fifth Avenue
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis.  Penguin, 2020.

2 stars

Forthcoming, July 2020

A shallow and simplistic historical novel about two women, almost a century apart, who are caught up in the investigations of thefts of rare books and manuscripts from The New York Public Library.

Fiona Davis was born in Canada and lived in various towns in the USA as a child.  Her undergraduate degree is from William and Mary University and her Masters is from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.  When she first came to New York, she worked in the theater.  In recent years she has turned to writing popular fiction.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue moves back and forth between two women both involved in uncovering thefts of rare books and manuscripts from the New York Public Library.  Laura Lyons was the wife of an early library director who lived in the Library with her husband and their two children in 1914.  Bored with her restricted life  as a wife and mother, Laura improbably studies journalism. Even more untypcially, she becomes involved with Heterodoxy, a women’s organization which discussed radical gender alternatives.  The other woman is Sadie, her granddaughter who works with rare books and manuscripts at the library eighty years later.  When rare items go missing, the two women are implicated.  In the chaos that follows, both face decisions about potential conflicts between love and careers.

The plot of the book is clever rather than plausible.  Minor errors are present: a child does not lose baby teeth at age eleven.  The lesbian theme is nice if unlikely.  But the real problem is with the failure of Davis to deal adequately with the historical background of early twentieth century New York, and especially with the options of the women who lived there.  Historical fiction is always a blend of what we can factually know about the past and an author’s imagination.  The best of the genre display a deep knowledge and sensitivity about a time and place out of which characters are drawn.  Davis fails at this task.  Details may or may not be accurate, but they reveal little of what life was like in 1914 for an elite woman bored with her life.  Economic and cultural differences are ignored.  It is not enough to simply find a handful of potentially interesting individuals from the past and throw their names at random into a story, as Davis seems to have done.  Overlooking the variety and complexity of radicalism and women’s causes in the early twentieth century city, she lumps together everyone who challenged tradition without explaining why radicals welcomed such a clueless wife and mother.

Davis’s approach is also irritating because they reflect sloppiness about factual accuracy in our society.  Fiction about ethnic identity often has a similar problem.  For me the issue is not simply the identity of the author but whether or not an author has the experience and sensitivity to adequately describe a time and place different from their own.  Popular fiction or history needs to be true to what can be known even as it allows authors to be imaginative about what cannot be known.  Davis fails badly in this regard.

I cannot recommend this book to anyone.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo.

March 17, 2020

Girl, Woman, Other
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo.  Black Cat, 2019.  Booker Prize winner, 2019.

5 stars

A very impressive and wonderful book, winner of the Booker Prize, about a group of black lesbians and their varied friends, families, and lovers in London by an Anglo-Nigerian women.

Bernardine Evaristo is the eighth child of an English mother who was a teacher and a Nigerian father who was a welder and Labour organizer.  After attending  English schools, she graduated from the University of London with a Ph.D. in Creative Writing.  She has published eight books in a variety of formats as well as writing for radio and the theater.  All her writings reflect her interest in the African diaspora and her desire to advocate for the inclusion of artists and writers of colorHer work has received a variety of awards, including the Booker Prize for 2019.  At present, she is Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University, London.

Black lesbians are at the core of Evaristo’s prize-winning novel, but her varied cast contains so much more.  Interwoven with the central characters are an amazing mix of “others,” as her title indicates.  The novel is an ode to the variety, diversity, and fluidity of those with whom her characters relate.  Female and male, varied and changeable sexual orientations, and lots of shades of racial identity all are intertwined.  The characters are less a community than a colleague, moving into and out of each other’s lives.  The women at the core of the novel are black lesbians, some of them migrants to London or their parents were.  Yet this is not a separatist novel.  In fact, the only experimentation with separatism ends badly.  Male and/or Anglo characters are positively depicted as they are loved and hated by the women.

Evaristo manages all the characters and their various lifestyles with a strong stable structure.  The book is divided into four chapters.  Each chapter contains the stories of three women, related to the others in that chapter by shared bonds of family, friends and lovers.  These chapters are generally chronological and often offer differing viewpoints of the women.  Mother-daughter interactions are portrayed with real complexity.  Individuals from other chapters make cameo appearances. The final chapter and the epilogue bring all characters together in surprising ways.

This structure also allows Evaristo to exhibit her innovative prose.  In recreating the language of her character, she creates her own syntax by omitting periods and opening capitalization from her sentences.  Slang and alternative spellings abound.  With her unconventional writing, she emerges readers in the lives and context of her characters’ lives.  Evaristo is an experimental writer but an accessible one.  I only found her flexibility a problem when she used plural for personal pronouns with her transgender characters. But unlike some experimental writers, her narrative is usually clear. We always know who we are hearing.

This is a big book and in some ways a challenging one, but I recommend it highly.

Places I Have Taken My Body, by Molly McCully Brown. 

March 12, 2020

Places I've Taken My Body
Places I Have Taken My Body, by Molly McCully Brown.  Persea Books, 2020.

FORTHCOMING, June 2020.

5 stars

Powerful essays by a woman describing how cerebral palsy has affected who she is and how she has lived fully anyway; an important book with insights for all of us as we struggle with the limitations of our bodies.

Molly McCully Brown was born and raised in western Virginia near Lynchburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.   She studied at Bard College and Stanford University and received her MFA from the University of Mississippi.  Her first book of poetry, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was well received, and she has been awarded a variety of awards and fellowships both national and international.  Currently she teaches at Kenyon College as the Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry.

As she displays in her new book, Brown is much more than the cerebral palsy which has shaped her life since birth.  She is an exquisite poet and essayist who has used her linguistic ability to understand her disability and larger issues of the body and mind.  Never free from her physical pain and limitations,  she has shaped her own life and prusued a life full of writing, teaching, and travel.  Her new book is labeled as being a collection of essays, but in some ways it is a non-chronological memoir of her journey to live fully, probing her limitations and moving ahead anyway.

With parents who taught English in a small college, Brown grew up immersed in language. As her physical problems intensified, she endured numerous surgeries and therapies which scarred her physically and mentally without curing her.  But neither pain nor her limitations lessened her drive to put her experience into language.

In poetry and later in prose, Brown found a way to express herself.  The repetitions and silences of poetry captured the repetitions and slowness with which she was forced to live.  In poetry she could release the shame and guilt for the disability with which she had to cope. She could write of how her own physical problems left her unable to trust and  become close to others and unwilling to share her own needs.  As a result of these experiences, her book is both raw and intimate.

Most of us do not share the disabilities that have shaped Brown, but at some level we all face the limitations of our physicality.  Brown’s story offers insight and hope for what many of us experience but do not always face.  I strongly recommend her book.