The Americans, by Chita Viragahavan. HarperCollins, 2015.
A multi-character novel about immigrants and their families in the United States, most of them from India.
This novel is a composite of many stories. About twenty individuals hold the focus of its chapters. Their stories constantly interrupt each other, usually breaking in just as excitement builds. Some of their lives are interwoven, with various members of the same families giving differing accounts of the same events. Others seem totally unrelated until we discover that each has some connection to Tara, a single woman in her thirties, who is in America for a few months helping out her sister. Most of the characters are from India, but also included among them is a Jewish woman from Israel, a family from Mexico, and the reading notes of a black woman just starting college.
The author makes perceptive observations about life in America, showing how immigrants often break or lose the close ties they once had to their families.
Individually the stories are interesting, but together they become somewhat overwhelming. Some of the characters are rich and others poor; some are involved in dangerous activities, and they live all over the country. While the novel reveals an understanding of the diversity of immigrant life and a sympathy to its diversity, I found it tried to include too much. The constant shifting of place and character interfered with any attempt to deal with anyone adequately. I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been constructed more simply as a collection of short stories.
This is the first novel by Chitra Viragahavan, a woman who has lived and taught in various cities in India as well as in Boston.
I recommend it to those looking for fiction about immigrants coming to American in the present.
Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes, by Kathleen Alcala. Mariner Books (1998), 256 pages.
Favorite 5 stars
A delightful book by a Chicana set in northern Mexico around 1900, full of unique characters, and touched with other-worldly magic and grace.
Kathleen Alcala is a true storyteller, able to intertwine a variety of stories into one narrative. At the center is Zacarias, a man descended from Jews who had come to Mexico generations earlier, publicly converting to Catholicism to avoid being killed in the Inquisition, but practicing their faith in secret. Zacarias’ father continues to study Jewish texts, and his mother is mute but extra sensitive to the world around her. As the book begins, Zacarias is obsessed with prospecting for gold. He spends most of his time, and his wife’s money, in the mountains. When she cuts off his access to her wealth, he leaves on a quest for gold. Living among native peoples, he changes and changes the lives of those around him.
Estela is Zacarias’ Catholic wife and the mother of their three children. When he leaves she has adventures of her own. Her mother has died, but her father is a successful merchant active in the community. In addition, Estela is the sister of strange twins, a boy and a girl so androgynous that no one can tell which is which. They also have a gift for finding water in the dry landscape. Additional minor characters, also unique, move in and out of the story. I especially liked the young woman posing as a man who travels through the southwest as a photographer.
Alcada was born in California to Mexican parents. Her own past contains some of the elements that she includes in her books. Her ancestors include both Indians and Jewish “Crypto Christians” like Zacarias’ family. She has explored her heritage in three novels about northern Mexico and the desert southwest of the United States, in her collection of short stories, and in The Desert Remembers My Name, a book of essays about her family and her writing. Her books have won various awards for western writing. Some critics categorize her writing as magical realism, but she herself does not accept that label, viewing her work instead as historical fiction. However Alcada’s writing is classified, it exhibits a strong talent for moving back and forth across boundaries of place and identity. I am reminded of Gloria Anzaldúa’s description of growing up as a mestiza on the borderlands of Mexico and Texas. In an interview, she states how she views what she does:
I have come to realize, finally, that my life’s work, whatever it has been called, is the act of translation. Not necessarily from one language to another, but between world views. I am a translator between worlds, between cultures, between jargons and contexts. And in trying to explain these many worlds to others and myself, I have become a writer.
One of boundaries that Alcada transcends in her writing is that between the concrete, natural world and the magical or spiritual world. Her characters accept that life contains elements that need not be rationally explained. Folk tales blur into spiritual traditions. Judaism is a strong thread in the story, but not in ways that cause discomfort for non-believers.
I enthusiastically recommend Alcada’s book for a wide variety of readers. Buoyant and vibrant, it is an enjoyable example of Chicana writing.
The Floating Garden, by Emma Ashmere.
Australian Women Writers
A wide-ranging historical novel about Sydney and its people in the 1920s: those who were displaced with the building of the harbor bridge, those unhappy and wealthy, and those attracted to spiritualism.
Sydney itself lies at the heart of this book, with Emma Ashmere providing fine descriptions of various parts of the city and nearby country. Much of the action takes place on Milson’s Point, a rundown part of Sydney about to be destroyed to make way for the building of the iconic bridge across the harbor. Ellis is a middle-aged lesbian who has run a boarding house there for almost thirty years. She belongs to its closely knit neighborhood. The coming upheaval has brought back her memories and guilt over a young woman she had loved when both were part of a spiritualist household. Another major character is Rennie, an English woman who wants to be an artist. She is married to a wealthy, but abusive husband. Their lives intersect when Rennie runs away from her husband and Ellis is forced to seek a new place to live.
Ashmere tells Ellis’s story well. The book is organized with a mix of non-chronological chapters focusing on different times and different characters. Her structure works because of her writing skills and the way in which the chapters link well with each other, eventually blending into a larger narrative. Her characters are unique and interesting, if not always realistic. At times the plot hinges on coincidences, but somehow that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book. Details are sharp and realistic, while a sense of unreality and transition prevails.
Emma Ashmere is an interesting Australian woman. This is her first novel although she has previously published a number of short stories. She has also worked as a researcher on books about Australian gardening history and women and empire. Her Masters in Creative Writing is from the University of Adelaide and her Ph.D. is from La Troube University. Her biography says that her graduate work at La Troube University focused on “the use of marginalised histories in fiction.” As an historian sometimes frustrated by the lack of information about those “marginalised” in the past, I am very aware of the potential for doing just this. The Floating Garden is a fine example how fiction can be useful in expanding our understanding of the past. It is also simply an engaging narrative. I would love to know more about her thoughts and her process for creating this.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to other readers, especially those who care about Sydney, and those interested in a new type of historical fiction.
Thanks to Spinifex Press for publishing another fine novel and for sending me a copy to read and review. Keep up the good work.
I Love Paper: Paper-Cutting Techniques and Templates for Amazing Toys, Sculptures, Props, and Costumes, by Fideli Sundqvist.
A how-to-do-it book with instructions for making a wide variety of paper-cutting projects.
Fidelis Sundqvist is a Swedish designer trained in graphic design and illustrating. She also makes cut-paper project for displays and exhibitions. In this book she shares her ideas and her methods. She has a website where you can see more of her paper art.
After briefly introducing basic information about supplies and tools, Fideli Sunqvist presents silhouettes and three-dimensional objects and clear instructions about creating them. Then she presents more complex projects with food, customs, and buildings. For each she provides patterns and step-by-step measures to create them or to adapt them to other creative ventures.
She has a website where you can see more of her paper art at fidelisundqvist.com.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in making paper objects. Beginners will find complete guidance, and more experienced artists will find inspiration for their own creations.
False Tongues, by Kate Charles. Marylebone House (2015), Paperback, 288 pages.
A person-centered mystery with multiple plots, featuring a young woman priest in the Church of England and a teenager found dead in a London park.
Kate Charles is a prolific mystery writer who was born in the United States and later moved to England. Her novels often focus on individuals in the Church of England and how it is served by all too human men and women. This is her fourth in her series about Callie Anson, a young woman becoming an Anglican priest. While reading the book, however, I had no sense that it was part of a series.
Alternating chapters in False Tongues follow the various subplots of the book. Callie returns to the theological school in Cambridge for a reunion with others of her graduating class from the previous year. Her return reignites her feelings about a man she had loved while a student. Another plot-line involves the murdered body of a teenage boy from a prosperous family. Callie has only indirect involvement with the murder or the secrets surrounding it. The man she now loves is part of the investigation, but he is not the primary detective in charge. Other subplots develop around the boy who was killed and his family and friends, the family of the priest who is Callie’s supervisor, and various individuals she encounters in Cambridge.
Recently it seems that every book I read has the structure of alternating chapters following different narratives. Perhaps authors find this an easy way to introduce varied characters and issues. For mystery writers it may be a way to involve the characters in previous books in a series. Some writers handle this structure better than others. I find this approach tends to make books broad and shallow rather than delving deep in characters or issues. That may be what authors and readers want. I am currently longing for a book with one central, chronological story.
Yet, False Tongues is an engaging book which includes interesting characters and issues. I liked how Charles treated the gay men in the book; with casual acceptance in most cases but with sensitivity to their particular problems in others. The institutional church setting was unusual and women priests like Callie are still a novelty for some. The treatment of religion was not heavy-handed, although the useful guidance from the older priest became a bit preachy.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy mysteries focused on character rather than gore.
Of Noble Origins, Sahar Khalifeh. The American University in Cairo Press (2012), Edition: 1, Paperback, 304 pages. Aida Bamia (Translator)
A complex novel by a renowned Palestinian author about a family from Nablus living through the British governance of the country and its growing Jewish colonization after the World War I.
The ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Jews have emerged out of conditions established at the end of World War I, yet few of us understand the chaos in Palestine in those years. The merit of this book is to tell the story of what happened at both the private and the public level that led to the polarization and violence we see today.
For Sarah Khalifeh, this is not simply a story of victims and victimizers or of inherited religious differences. Some Arabs and Jews had simplistic stereotypes of each other, but Khalifeh deftly moves beyond them to reveal the rich diversity of both sides. Hers is a story primarily of European colonization of the Middle East by the Jews and the Palestinian inability to retain their homeland. As such it not only expands readers’ understanding of the Jewish-Arab conflict, it also addresses more widespread issues around colonization.
The bare historical facts lay out the problems underlying the novel. Palestine had been ruled by Turkey as part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Palestinians and other Arabs joined the British and its Allies. In return for fighting other Muslims, they were promised independence from Turkish rule. At the peace talks, however, Middle Eastern countries were given to European countries to govern. Britain was granted a mandate to rule Palestine. Instead of granting Palestine independence as promised, they assured European Jews that the territory would be given to them.
The only British person in the book is the governor of the region, an ambivalent man whom I considered one of the best drawn characters in the book. He is intent on retaining order and enforcing the mandate, but deeply appreciative of Arabs and their culture—and of a particularly attractive young Arab woman. He dislikes the Jewish leaders who push him to act in their behalf, but he does little to stop their drive for power. In Khalifeh’s descriptions, the Jewish leaders clearly express their utter disregard for the inhabitants of Palestine. Despite evidence to the contrary they speak off them as dark-skinned, illiterate, and barely human, fit only to be servants of the civilized European Jews. These men are balanced with Khalifeh’s more sympathetic treatment of other Jews, especially in the kibbutz where they are obviously simple workers.
As a Palestinian herself, Khalifeh is most concerned with the variety of Palestinians and the diverse beliefs about what ought to be done in the face of British and Jewish takeover. Her story focuses on Zakiyeh, a widow raising her four children alone. She is a strong, intelligent, illiterate woman, but one who can be demanding and narrow minded. She comes from a family “of noble origins,” descendants of the Prophet. Her one daughter, Wedad, has been crushed by her demands and become a shy, insecure shadow of a woman. Her eldest son, Waheed, is a devote Muslim who quit school and worked hard to support the family. Zakiyeh forces both son and daughter to marry into their uncle’s wealthy family to resolve the family’s ongoing financial problems. While Zakiyeh is a devote Muslim, her brother and his children are westernized and move easily among wealthy Jewish friends. He is even involved with smuggling arms and ammunition to Jews who will use it to fight his Muslim relatives.
Unsurprisingly, the marriages fail, as both Wedad and Waheed are pushed into a changing world. Wedad tries to run away and gets involved with a movement of modern Arab women speaking out for their nation. More realistically, Waheed joins the guerrilla resistance to the British and Jewish rule. When he attempts to talk to his mother about his fear that Palestinians are losing their country, she is preoccupied with the barrenness of his wife. Attention shifts to Amin, the second son, who is educated and living in Jerusalem. As a journalist, he is aware of larger political affairs. Palestinians are split between rural and urban factions. Their leaders refuse to lead opposition to the British and Jewish power. While Nationalists push to defend Palestine, Communists urge that Jewish and Arab workers should unite against the oppressive wealthy. Even within the guerrilla forces there are divisions. No moderate position seems viable. Disunity among the Palestinians leaves them unable to defend their land, and the British mandate is powerless to protect them.
Sahar Khalifeh is a leading Palestinian writer, the author of nine novels and recipient of various literary prizes. She was born in 1942, in Nablus in the newly created Occupied Territories. The fifth daughter in a traditional Palestinian family, she experienced what it meant to be the “miserable, useless, worthless sex,” imprisoned with endless rules of behavior. After years in an unhappy, arranged marriage, she began to write. By doing so, she was able to leave her marriage and establish herself as a Palestinian author. In her thirties, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study in America where she earned an MA in English from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and PhD in Women’s Studies and American Literature from the University of Iowa. Returning to Palestine, she has continued her interest in women’s issues and her writing about life within the Palestinian struggle.
As literature, I would have preferred a stronger plot and stronger connection between the private and public narratives. Yet despite this quibble, I was very impressed and moved by this book. I learned a great deal from it. Too often those of us living in colonizers’ countries fail to understand the inevitable problems growing out of colonization. Of Noble Origins gave me a fresh perspective on current unrest around the globe.
I strongly recommend this important book to readers; especially to those needing to understand both the particular Arab-Israeli conflict and the larger problems of people seeking to move out of colonization.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon. Random House (2015), Hardcover, 672 pages.
A dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a major early advocate of women’s rights, and her daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley are women who deserve our attention. Wollstonecraft wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Women, the most extensive statement of why women should be treated as well as men that had appeared when it first published in the 1790s. The problems it addressed still remain unresolved and the book still worth reading. Wollstonecraft also craved out a life for herself that was highly unusual for the period, writing, supporting herself in the company of radical men of her generation. Among them was William Godwin, a fellow radical whom she married shortly before their daughter Mary was born. Ten days after Mary’s birth, Wollstonecraft died, and the girl was raised by her father and his second wife and later married Percy Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.
Charlotte Gordon teaches at Endicott College in Massachusetts. She has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Boston University. Yet her dual biography is not an academic one. She has published other books, never specializing on the time and place of her subjects. She makes the point that Mary Shelley was deeply affected by her mother, a fact that she says has been frequently overlooked. Yet she doesn’t prove that absense with chains of evidence documented by footnotes or discussion of how other scholars have viewed these women. She does not establish whether this book was original research from primary sources or if it was primarily a summary of the research of others. On her website, she says that when she noticed these two women, she wanted to make sure they were better known. Who can argue with that? Her book is not academic but seems to be aimed at a general, but educated audience of readers. Yet it is a very big book, with more detail than general readers usually appreciate.
Gentle Outlaws in structured into alternating chapters featuring Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. The pairings seem intended to present them at the parallel points in their lives, but I found the organization confusing. It was hard enough just to keep straight who was doing what, especially since both women shared the name Mary. The shifting time periods made it difficult to get a real sense of what was going on around them, personally, socially or intellectually. The result was to play down the revolutionary eras they lived through which shaped their lives and writings.
I recommend this book primarily to those who enjoy big biographies of significant women from the past.