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The Hope Fault, by Tracy Farr.

April 25, 2019

The Hope Fault
The Hope Fault, by Tracy Farr.  London: Freemantle Press, 2017.

4 stars

A skillfully written novel of an extended family, broken and reassembled, forced to face their conflicts and pain in a weekend spent together packing up their old house on the southwestern coast of Australia.

Tracy Farr was born in Melbourne, grew up in Perth, and for 20 years has lived in New Zealand.   She has degrees in both Science and Arts from the University of Western Australia.  She has published a variety of award-winning short stories, a previous novel, and held residences and fellowships in both Australia and New Zealand.

The Hope Fault is set in the far southwestern corner of Australia, one hundred and fifty miles south of Perth. The story takes place in a house used as a vacation home for a group of loosely related individuals with unresolved tensions and secrets.  The main character is Iris, a motherly soul still trying to keep things together.  Also present are her ex-husband, his new wife, and their baby. Additional guests include Iris’s best friend, who is her ex-husband’s sister, and their confused and struggling adolescents.  In addition, a fine, long section about Iris’s mother is inserted in the story of the seaside house.

There is much to like about this novel. The writing is sharp and clear; characters are interesting, plot nicely interwoven.  Images of hope and fault lines unify and divide the book.  Yet for me, the novel was depressingly static. The characters are caught in their own destructive patterns, with almost no possibilities for change or resolution.  I prefer novels in which I can sense psychological movement, if not physical change.  The ending deliberately refuses to resolve issues raised.  Or perhaps, Farr is making just that point.  Maybe she means to describe how firmly and tragically we all let ourselves by caught in the past.

Do read this book.  If you think you can handle its depressive mood.

 I’m back. 

April 24, 2019

Sorry to have been silent for several months dealing with health problems.  I have been reading, however.  I will review some of the books I read while I was offline, but not all of them.  Here are a few I’d like to just mention briefly.

The Narrow Waist of the World

1. At the Narrow Waist of the World: A Memoir, by Marlena Maduro Baraf. She Writes Press, August 6, 2019.

4 stars

A memoir of an aristocratic Jewish girl growing up in Panama and trying to cope with a distant and troubled mother.

 

Nannie Helen Burroughs
2. Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959, edited by Kelisha B. Graves. University of Notre Dame Press, May 31, 2019

 3 stars — Poor quality digital printing made this book hard to read.

A collection of articles and speeches by one of the early twentieth-century African American women who established schools and better lives for girls of their race.

New Daughters of Africa3. New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby. HarperCollins, May 7, 2019.

4 stars

An important, massive anthology of global women of color.

 

Black Indian

4. Black Indian, by Shonda Buchanan. Wayne State University Press, August 26, 2019.  Made in Michigan Writers Series.

3 stars

A narrative of an angry, disruptive Black Indian family interwoven with careful research into the historical development of racial definitions in North America.

Women on the Ground

5.Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, edited by Zahra Hankir. Forward by Christiane Amanpour. Penguin, August 6, 2019.

4 stars

Moving accounts of women journalists from the Arabic world who reported on U.S. military actions in their countries; their personal losses and their shifting sense of identity.

 

Ayesha At Last

6. Ayesha At Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin. Penguin, June 4, 2019.

3 stars

An amusing narrative about a large and diverse Indian-American family and their internal squabbles.

 

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan.

December 18, 2018

Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan.  Knopf, 2018.

5 stars  FAVORITE

Wonderful storytelling by an African Canadian woman about a slave boy from Barbados saved by his master’s brother and transported into the life of a fugitive and seeker in the Canadian Artic, London, and Africa.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 in Alberta, Canada, of Ghanian parents.  She attended   the University of Victoria and earned her Masters degree from John Hopkins.   She has taught creative writing at John Hopkins University and the University of Victoria and lives in Victoria, British Columbia.  Her previous novels are The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Half-Blood Blues have received several notable awards.  Washington Black is currently appearing on virtually everyone’s best book list for 2018.

In Edugyan’s novel, Wash was simply another slave orphan who survived by clinging to a fierce woman slave. By chance, he is chosen by his English master’s brother, nicknamed Titch, to be his assistant.  Intent on building a hot-air balloon, Titch chooses Wash because he is the right size to be the balloon’s blast. Titch quickly discovers that Wash is a talented artist and a budding scientist..  A bond between them grows and Titch saves Wash from slavery and from death by escaping the plantation in the balloon.  The two of them drift, their movements shaped by the fact that Wash is a fugitive slave.  Eventually they go to northern Canada looking for Titch’s father, a well-known explorer.  When Titch leaves Wash in his father’s camp, the boy is torn by the rupture from the man who has been his savior.  Wash goes looking for him and arrives in a Nova Scotian town where he becomes involved with a young woman and her scientist father. He goes to England, continuing to search for Titch in Europe and Africa.

At one level, Washington Black is full of detailed descriptions of physical realities as different as the murderous suffering of a slave to the examples of fantastic sea life that Wash captures in his drawings.  At another level the book is a coming of age story of a black child who escapes slavery but finds no place for himself in the “free” world.  And perhaps the book is about slavery and its lingering impact on black/white relations.  Perhaps it is about dependency and loss.  Any book that resonates at so many levels and remains a delightful read is worthwhile, especially one that offers such unusual perspectives on still persisting attitudes.

This book is no fantasy, yet its plot is as likely to have happened as one of Charles Dickens’ classics.  Like Dickens, Edugyan combine a sharp depiction of harsh physical reality with a magical sense of the narrative.  Occasionally the journey seems unnecessarily long, but the ending is spectacular.

I enthusiasitically recommend this book.  Be prepared to be amazed.

Salt Creek, by Lucy Treloar

December 12, 2018

Salt CreekSalt Creek, by Lucy Treloar. London: Aardvark Bureau, 2017 (First published in 2015)

5 star—FAVORITE

A revealing novel of a family who settled in an isolated station in South Australia’s Coorong region in the 1830s, but instead of triumph brought tragedy on themselves and the indigenous people of the area.

Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer, editor and creative writing teacher.  Herself of European descent, she was born in Malaysia attended school in Melbourne, England, and Sweden. Her short stories and her non-fiction have been widely published and honored.  Awarded an Asialink Writer’s Residency, she lived for several years in Cambodia. She now lives with her family in Melbourne.

In part, Salt Creek seems to be the result of Treloar’s attempts to deal with her family’s past.  The novel grew out of her own family’s stories about ancestors who settled in the Coorong in the 1800s.  Although the book, and Salt Creek itself, is fictional, the people, the place, and the moral issues they raise have inspired Treloar’s narrative.  She is particularly sensitive to the Indigenous experience of European settlement, yet she states in an interview that she chose to center on the narrative of Hester Finch and leave the Indigenous peoples the right to tell their own story.  Instead, she is has chosen to include an Indigenous boy character brought into the Finch family to be “civilized.”

The narrator of Salt Creek is Hester Finch, fifteen years old when her father moves the whole family to the Coorong.  Coming to Australia from England, Papa Finch feels he needs to recover his own financial losses by establishing a successful station on a lagoon along the sea coast.  A determined and self-righteous individual, he brings his submissive wife and seven children into brutal living conditions which they are inadequately prepared to survive.  In England, he had been a strong Abolitionist, but his attitude towards the Indigenous people he encounters exhibits the worst of the colonial mindset.

Treloar’s excellent writing ability allows her to interweave plots focusing on different members of the family.  Hester is the oldest girl, forced into taking care of all the others as her mother’s health declines.  She struggles with duty, love, and the desire for more of life than the unending drudgery she experiences.  Her older brothers are strong and conventional and simply want to escape their father’s tyranny.  Another brother excels at drawing and science, absorbing the newly available ideas of Darwin.  A younger sister is a flirt, unwilling to carry her part of the load, but later shows a capacity for love. Younger children fill out the household for a time.  Tully, an Indigenous boy, comes to live with the family, bringing even greater disruption to them.  Overall, doom hangs over the Finch family and individual tragedies take place.  Yet the book and Hester, its central figure, are also filled with life and resilleince.

I highly recommend this book for readers who like family stories set on a frontier and interacting with Indigenous peoples.  Having read many narratives set on the American frontier, I particularly liked reading about the similar, yet different Australian experience.

The Tenth Muse, by Catherine Chung.

December 9, 2018

The Tenth Muse
The Tenth Muse: A Novel, by Catherine Chung. 
Harper Collins.

FORTHCOMING: June 18, 2019

5 stars  FAVORITE

A beautifully crafted novel by a Korean American woman about a Chinese American girl with a rare talent for mathematics seeking to understand her own complicated legacy while living her own complicated life as a woman facing personal choices of love and career in the biased world of academia.

Catherine Chung was born in New York to Korean immigrants.  After a childhood in New Jersey and Michigan, she graduated with a degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago and worked for the Rand Corporation.  Returning to her first love of writing, she earned her MFA from Cornell University.  She has written and published widely acclaimed short stories and the novel, Forgotten Country.

On the surface, The Tenth Muse is the story of Katherine, a girl of Chinese descent growing up in an unusual family, never quite feeling she belonged, and spending a lifetime trying to discover where she belonged.  At another level, the narrative traces a young woman of rare mathematical genius seeking achievement in a world that regularly discounts the ability of women.  As the book progresses, Katherine struggles with choices around independent aspiration and sacrificial love, appearing in various configurations.  She views the choices exemplified by stories her mother told her.  On one hand there was “the tenth muse,” an additional muse who refused to be a passive inspiration for others and a Chinese princess who was willing to give her life for other for others.  When Katherine goes to Europe, her career and her search for her personal history become interwoven with events from World War II and affect her sense of her own identity.

Chung subtlety and sensitively explores moral issues while telling a compelling story.  By framing old dilemmas in new terms, she is able to give them new life.  The narrative and the characters are complex.  Good people have flaws,  opening the way for betrayals and loss.  Although Chung’s plot is clear and often urgent, her narrative is never simplistic.

This is a glorious book.  One that I would  love to discuss with other readers who care about goodness and truth.  I have already ordered a copy of Chung’s other novel.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah.

November 29, 2018

The Hundred Wells of Salaga
The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah.  Other Press, February 2019.

4 stars

FORTHCOMING

A novel set in the region of present-day Ghana at the time of the slave trade focusing on two women, one the daughter of a chief and the other a woman who becomes her slave.

Ayesha Harruna Attah was born in 1983 in Ghana where her parents ran a literary magazine at a time when the country was under military rule.  She came to the United States where she studied biochemistry to Mount Holyoke, Columbia University and New York University.  She has published two previous, award-winning novels and a non-fiction book. She now lives in Senegal.

Attah sets her book in the region which would become Ghana in the nineteenth century as the slave trade was declining and Europeans were competing to acquire African territories.  Chaotic violence was widespread, disrupting the lives of a variety of people.  Not only were Africans fighting Europeans, Africans fought each other as German and British forces competed for their alliances.  The book follows the paths of two women; Aminah, captured from her home village and made a slave and Wurche, a chief’s daughter and an active member of his court. Their lives connect when Aminah becomes a slave of Wurche.

For many of us in the West, knowledge of African history is shallow and simplistic.  Attah shows us how complex life was for women caught up in international struggles.  I recommend this book, especially for readers who would like to understand more about the African past.

Women Within: A Novel, by Anne Leigh Parrish.

November 26, 2018

Women Within
Women Within: A Novel,  by Anne Leigh Parrish.   Black Rose Writing, 2017.

3 stars

The stories of three women; a 92-year-old in a retirement community and two women who take care of her.

Anne Leigh Parrish was born in upstate New York but eventually made her way west. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado and a MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. She has published a number of award-winning short stories, and this is her second novel.

Although Parrish identifies Women Within as a novel, it is structured more like three related short stories. The first focuses on a resident in a retirement home, a woman who has taught in college and has strained relations to the woman she raised as a daughter.  The other stories are about two of the women who are on staff and responsible for her care.  All three women have had disrupted and challenging lives.

I liked the idea structuring this book, but overall, my positive expectations were not meet.  The relationship among the women was too slight for them to have meaningful interaction or feelings about each other.  The stories of the caregivers were simply dull as each drifted passively through events and relationships.  Any hope that the caregivers have at the end of their stories is negated by their lack of willingness to take hold of their lives.  Perhaps the author meant to raise the profile of women devoted to caregiving, but their lack of direction did not make for good reading.

Overall, the book is adequate, but not interesting.