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Discretion, by Elizabeth Nunez.

October 19, 2016

Discretion, by Elizabeth Nunez. Akashic Books, 2016. Forthcoming

4 stars

A new novel from a favorite Caribbean American author of mine which probes questions of truth and falsehood and dares to challenge our assumptions.

Elizabeth Nunez was born and raised in Trinidad and came to the United States to finish her education.  She received a PhD in English from New York University and is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, the City University of New York.  A popular Caribbean writer, she has published nine novels and an autobiography.  Her writing is a pleasure to read, full of insight into how her characters think and act and the power of the landscapes that surround them.  Discretion is a novel that she first published in 2003 and is now being reissued by Akashic Books.

I have enjoyed many of Nunez’s novels and was glad to have access to one I had not read.  Unlike many of her works, it is not set in the Caribbean and is narrated and focused on a male character.  Oufoula is a distinguished African ambassador who loves two women. Nerida is “his wife, his friend, the mother of his children.”   Margarete is a painter, sensitive and creative, who opens him up to new joys.  At some level, he needs both his stable wife and his exciting artist.   When Margarete breaks up with him after learning the truth about his marriage, he tries to convince himself that he can forget her.  Seeing her again 25 years later, he is again unable to choose between the two women he loves.

Oufoula believes that as a diplomat and a lover he must lie or use “discretion” in what he tells and does not tell.  Nunez skillfully explores how he lies to others and more importantly to himself.  A person can refuse to act on love, but is it possible to stop loving?  How do we accept our own inability to have what we strongly desire?  She also raises issues about what her characters can control and what is simply destined to be.

At first I found Oufoula difficult to understand or like.  He seemed arrogant and rigidly self-serving.  Gradually, however, I was convinced that he was sincere and that he was moving beyond his early narrowness.  As he points out, loving several women was a deeply acceptable pattern of African life.  He was the descendant of African men who were polygamists, and thus he could defend what most western readers cannot accept.  The women’s response to his action is less clearly explored, yet in the end it is one of them that is willing to act decisively.

As in her other writings, Nunez writes with grace and insight into her characters.  Yet in Discretion, she writes with a roughness that bites through the smoothness of her words more than in her later books.  This book barely resolves the questions she raises.  I have read other books about polygamy in Africa and considered the disadvantages and advantages for women.  I had never before, however, felt the depth of my own society’s commitment to monogamy, even as we accept same-sex relations.  I find it hard to criticize Nunez for making me think and feel in new ways even if she makes me uncomfortable.  As always I am pleased to recommend Nunez’s Discretion to other readers.

When Mamma Speaks, Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder.

October 16, 2016

When Mamma Speaks:  The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective.  Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016.  FORTHCOMING

3 stars

Sermon-like essays by a black woman religious scholar stressing the relevance of women in the Bible to the problems that black mothers face today in a society that discriminates against them and their children on the basis of race, class, and gender.

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder is an ordained Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister who teaches New Testament at Belmont University. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in Speech Pathology/Audiology from Howard University; a Master of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, and Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in Religion from Vanderbilt University.  She is active in the church world and the scholarly one.  With a particular interest in pop culture and R and B music, her writings frequent appear online in publications like Sojourners and Huffington Post, and she tweets at #womanistmomma. She is married to a minister, has two sons, and claims to enjoy pop culture, preaching and parenting.

Crowder grounds her book in her extensive knowledge of the Bible and in her understanding of “womanism,” a term popularized by Alice Walker and others to point a type of feminism that focused on problems of race and class as well as gender.  The first chapters explain why she is committed to both.  The following chapters each focus on a woman or group of women from the Bible giving a detailed interpretation of their stories.  Then Crowder relates each subject to a contemporary issue like police violence or the need to stand up for a child.  She goes on to point out the connection and message in the readings.

I think that Crowder’s book will be most valued by church women, black or white, who share her Biblical outlook.  When I first saw her book, I hoped she would analyze how and why black women tend to think as they do.  While I can’t blame her for not writing the book I wanted, I have to admit that I had trouble getting excited by what she has written.  For others who share my interests in black women’s patterns of understanding, I recommend Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women, by Melissa Harris Perry, and Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, by Patricia Hill Collins.

The cover is wonderful!

Sonora, by Hannah Lillith Assadi

October 8, 2016

Sonora, by Hannah Lilith Assadi.  Soho Press (2017), 208 pages.

3 stars

An impressionistic coming-of-age novel about the daughter of a Palestinian father and an Israeli mother who lived first in the Arizona desert and then in the equally arid streets of New York.

Like the chief character in her novel, Hannah Lillith Assadi grew up in the Sonoran desert around Phoenix.  Coming to New York as a young adult, she attended Columbia University where she graduated summa cum laude in Middle Eastern Literature and Languages and Creative Writing.  She went on to earn a M.F.A. at Columbia and has published poetry, essays, translations, and short stories. This is her first novel.

Assadi moves her story back and forth through various times in the life of Ahlam, or Ariel, as she sometimes prefers to be called.   Her narration moves quickly from a visit with her family back in Phoenix as an adult to desert lands she knew as a child and adolescent to her experiences in New York as a young woman.  Although her parents care deeply about their divergent ethnic backgrounds, such issues mean little to Ahlam.  Her main ties are with her best and only friend, Laura, with whom she explored and experimented in  Arizona.  Traveling to New York City, the pair becomes sucked into a life of drugs and partying.  Although their bonds are strong and sex pervades the novel, their attraction is not depicted as lesbian.  Ahlam is always prone to visions, which intensify during her drug-filled years in New York, a place as lonely and uncaring as the desert from which she came.

Beautiful, lyrical writing appears throughout the book.  As always I enjoyed the wild, stark desert scenes.  Assadi deliberately structures the book around the chaos and longings of her character.  I can understand that approach abstractly, but in reality, I found the writing confusing.  I had a sense that I was missing something; perhaps I was right.

Sonora is one of those books that others may appreciate more than I did.


Dance on the Volcano, Marie Vieux-Chauvet

October 2, 2016

Dance on the Volcano, Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973).  Archipelago (2016), 496 pages.  Kaiama L Glover (Translator).  First published in French in 1957. Forthcoming December 2016.

5 stars

A newly-translated historical novel, by a major Haitian writer, about a mixed-race Haitian woman whose fine singing challenged the racial divide in the chaotic years leading up to the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s.

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright.  Born and educated in Port-au-Prince, she is one of those who established the Haitian literary tradition.  Her novels about life under the dictatorship of “Papa” Francois Duvalier led to her exile from her country.  She writes big sweeping novels which grapple with society and politics through the lens of a variety of characters.

Dance on the Volcano is a big novel, full of characters from different backgrounds and levels of society set in a time when Haiti was caught in the midst of chaos.  Society was sharply divided between slaves, free blacks, and whites but none of the groups unified.  Free blacks were often mulattoes who faced harsh restrictions.  None the less some freemen owned their own slaves and were wealthy competitors of the white plantation owners.  Some wealthy whites wanted more power to control black freemen and slaves.  They were in opposition to the French colonial forces that wanted the blacks, slave and free, to be treated humanely.  Other whites were comfortable associating with free blacks and helped them challenge the rules meant to define them.  Ideas of freedom and equality advocated by the American and French Revolutions were being discussed, and by the 1790s, revolution had begun.

Against this complicated background, Vieux-Chauvet tells the story of Minette, a beautiful young freewoman, only 15 when the book begins.  She lives in poverty with her single mother and her younger sister.  Her remarkable singing voice is noted by white neighbors who train her to sing on stage.  Although it is illegal for a free black to perform, rules get bent and she becomes a popular sensation, moving among black and white admirers.  She falls in love with a man who does not share her commitment to helping others of her race, and their love-hate relationship is a tumultuous one.  Moving around the island, she is brought into close contact with a wide variety of Haitians.    Although all are clearly marked by race, each responds to his or her place in society differently.  For those of us accustomed to thinking about race in neat black and white divisions, the racial mix of this novel is amazing.

In some ways, The Dance on the Volcano is a classic epic on the order of War and Peace, full of fascinating characters, fine writing, and multiple subplots, all held in a delicate balance.  Few classics, however, pay so much careful attention to the complex interactions of those outside of ruling circles.  This book is unique treat that I gladly recommend to a wide range of readers.


The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami.

September 26, 2016

The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami.   Ballantine Books (2002), Edition: Reprint, 359 pages

5 stars

A delightful novel set in south India about a large family who become heroes of their own lives when an orphaned Canadian granddaughter comes to live with them.

Anita Rau Badami was born in India in 1961.  She grew up and attended college there.  Emigrating to Canada in 1991, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Calgary where she wrote her first novel Tamarind Woman as her thesis.  This is her second novel.  She now lives in Vancouver, which she enjoys, but the noisy bustle of India remains dear to her.  She is particularly interested in the gap between the cultures she has known in India and Canada and with the impact of changes within India.

A Hero’s Walk is set in an imaginary town in South India near Madras and centers on a once-wealthy family living in a crumbling ancestral mansion.  The head of the family is Sripathi Rao, a middle-aged man disappointed with the loss of his own ambitions and those of his mother.  His life has come to focus of his sense of duty and appearances, and he often cuts out those who intrude on his narrow life.  His wife, Nirmala, is a sweet, passive woman, unwilling to shake up those around her by pursuing what she believes is right.  Sripathi’s mother, Ammayya, is in her eighties and full of anger at her own losses.  Putti is Sripathi’s sister. She is also full of anger about the emptiness of her own life, primarily because the failure of Sripathi and Ammayya to approve a husband for her although she is in her thirties.  Also living in the home is Arun, the grown son of Sripathi and Nirmala, who spends his time protesting the corruption of Indian life and resisting his father’s nagging him to get a job.

As the book opens, Maya, the couple’s daughter, has been killed along with her husband in far off Vancouver.  Despite having broken off with Maya over her marriage to a Canadian nine years earlier, the family must take her orphaned daughter, Nandana, age 7.  The child is so traumatized by her parents’ deaths and by the strangeness of India that she refuses to speak for months.  Her entrance, however, contributes to various insights and experiences that echo through the whole household.

Badami is an excellent writer, very attuned to the hidden messages that swirl around the large family. Writing in third person, she focuses on the individual family members, revealing their often contradictory thoughts and feeling.  Her description of street scenes in India are vivid and illuminating.  The family at the center of the book are Hindu, but not a pure version of the faith.  Children go to a Roman Catholic School, and superstitions are interwoven in their troubled thoughts.  The grandmother constantly flares up because the others no longer practice the caste system and do not protect her from exposure to people who belong to the lowest classes.

In the book’s “Reader’s Guide,” Badami explains the title and theme. She describes the dramatic dance-form she knew as a child in India.  Each character had a distinctive style of walking.  The “hero’s walk” was an identifying mark.  Badami sees each of her characters, all of them ordinary Indians, finding ways of being heroes.  All, that is except the grandmother, who remains committed to her long-lost caste privileges.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and was particularly pleased to be immersed in a generally Hindu way of life.  All of the characters were believable mixes of laudable qualities and infuriating ones.  Although the books contains loss and pain,  the characters move beyond their earlier narrowness as the plot progresses.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to readers, especially those interested in India, Hinduism, or family dynamics.  With its variety of characters and issues,  I think it would a fine choice for a book group.

Stripped to the Bone, by Ghada Alatrash.

September 22, 2016

Stripped to the Bone, by Ghada Alatrash.  Ottawa, CA: Petra Press, 2016.  176 pages.

2 stars

A raw collection of poetry and prose honoring women of Syria: those remaining in their country and those who have emigrated to Canada and the United States.

Ghada Alatrash is a poet, a student of Arabic poetry, and a translator. She was born in Syria and migrated to the United States, and then to Canada where she now lives.  Her father was a well-known Syrian diplomat to a variety of countries and represented his country in the United Nations.  He fostered his daughter’s love of Arabic poetry and encouraged her to give readings where she presented poetry in its original language and then in English.  In recent years, she has gained a following on the internet as part of a new wave of Syrian poets finding a voice there.

Stripped to the Bone is a collection of her own poetry and prose along with those of other Arabic poets. The book’s loose structure follows that typically found online.  Perhaps other, younger readers will find it more satisfying than I did.  The narratives of seven Syrian women form the backbone of the book.  They range from women dreaming of love, to women being tortured in prison, and those who have been forced to leave their homeland.  Alatrash tells their stories in lush expressive language.  At times her words seem to gush more than I liked, but that characteristic may reflect her native Syrian style.  She expresses a modern tolerance for a gay couple and a woman who chooses a long-term relationship with a man instead of marry him.  But she frequently uses terms like “essential femininity” that have been used to restrict women over time.

While I admire her intent in seeking to “amplify the voices of the silenced in our humanity,” I found the book unsatisfying.

A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi.

September 16, 2016

A House without Windows, Nadia Hashimi.  William Morrow (2016), 432 pages

5 stars — Favorite

A wise and suspense-filled story by an Afghan American woman about a village woman accused of murdering her abusive husband and the struggle of her and those around her for justice and dignity.

Nadia Hashimi’s parents left Afghanistan in the early 1970s, before the Soviet invasion.  She herself was born and raised in New York and New Jersey and didn’t visit the country until 2002.  Her extended family, however, kept the Afghan culture alive for her, regaling her with stories and characters which have made their way into her books.   She graduated from Brandis University with degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology and then earned a medical degree.  Now she lives in Maryland with her husband and four children and practices pediatric medicine.  She has written two previous novels about Afghanistan, both of which have been well received.

At the center of A House without Windows, is Zeba, an ordinary wife and mother in an Afghan village, who was found in her courtyard with her abusive husband dead and herself covered with blood.  She seemed to be the obvious murderer, but she is unwilling to explain what had happened.  Yusuf, a young lawyer assigned to defend her, had moved to America with his family as a child, but had returned to Afghanistan with the very American idea that an individual could make a difference.  However, he is frustrated by her unwillingness to talk.  In jail, Zeba became part of a vibrant group of women prisoners.  Bits of the larger stories about her and her family slowly emerge, and  surprises complicate what had seemed like a simple story.

Zeba and the other women are portrayed as strong and creative,  having survived a host of troubles of their own.  I found it a nice touch that many of the prison guards and administrators were women.  Yusuf and some of the other men are also positively presented, but the women in the book agree that men at best incompetent and at worse cruel.  Zeba’s mother explains to her that her brother and the lawyer both want to help her, “but they are men, and man can only see what they can hold in their hands…. It’s not their fault; it’s how they were designed.”  Theirs is a society where a woman’s testimony has only half the value of a man’s.  The jail is full of women arrested for acts vaguely defined as “sex outside of marriage” which can mean anything from talking back to a male authority or leaving her father’s home.  No wonder they all believe “ “What a burden it is to be born a woman.”

The complicated relationship of Zeba and her mother is another theme that is well developed in the novel.  Zeba’s mother was a powerful, controlling woman who got what she wanted, even using magic to do so.  Zeba “believed her to be someone larger than life and invincible.  That’s what made it acceptable to push her away.  Her mother was not frail or needy.  She was an island of autonomy even when the world around here was at war.”  Although Zeba had distanced herself from her mother, when she is in danger of being executed mother and daughter try to connect only to face the limits of their power.   “Why were she and her mother like two survivors floating on rafts, reaching out for each other only to be bounced apart by wave after tumultuous wave?”

A House without Windows is an excellent book, well-written and full of suspense and surprises.   Hashimi is the kind of writer who excels at compressing complicated situations into a few sentences.  She has written a provocative book and one that may annoy male readers.  But her book is an important one that pushes us to consider the impact of abusive relationships.  I recommend it highly.