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Longbourn, by Jo Baker.

May 24, 2015

Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, The Servants’ Story, by Jo Baker.  Vintage (2014), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 331 pages

4 stars

A masterful retelling if a classic story from the perspective of the servants, not the Bennets.

This is not simply another spinoff on Jane Austin’s novel. It is a brilliant display of what it means to see events from the viewpoints of those who are usually ignored and invisible. In Longbourn, the Bennets are there but they are not the focus of the novel. They provide the backdrop, the structure, of the narrative. In the foreground are the Bennets’ servants; Mr. and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook and her old and ailing husband and the housemaids, Sarah and Polly, both orphans taken from the Poor House. Polly is still a child, Sarah, now a young woman the age of Elizabeth Bennet, is the central character. The novel opens with the arrival of additional servant, James, a strange secretive young man who joins the household as footman. And the footman that the Bingleys bring adds new possibilties to the story. Although the servants experience love and pain just like their “betters,” their chores shape their lives very differently. Reading this book, we learn the details of the usually invisible work of cleaning, sewing and cooking, of providing for much of what we, like, the Bennets, take for granted. As Jo Baker explains, “There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.” And we learn of the ongoing frustration and vulnerability of those destined to perform this work.

Yet Longbourn is not a grim or angry book. Baker relates her narrative is a brisk enjoyable fashion. Her critique of social structure which undergrids her book is often expressed in calm, but cutting wit. The book’s plot is full of tension and unexpected twists. The result is a delightful novel that is sheer fun to read.

Jo Baker is an English writer with several excellent books to her credit. I have recently enjoyed and reviewed Undertow, The Telling, and my favorite, The Mermaid’s Daughter. Baker writes well about adventure and war, but I prefer her more domestic writing. In Longbourn, I was less impressed with James’s story before he joined the family, than I was with the actual depiction of the servants’ lives.

I enthusiastically recommend Longbourn to all readers, especially to those who like to explore a diversity of perspectives.

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.

May 22, 2015

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015.

4 stars

A superb history, well-written and documented, providing global context and personal stories and everything in between about those who have come to the United States from Asia.

Erika Lee is a fine historian with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkley and a Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota. Even to those of us somewhat familiar with the narrative she tells, she brings fresh information and insights. Her writing is clear and compelling, as well as well-documented. She pulls us into immigration history with the stories of individuals, including her own grandparents who emigrated from China.

What is most unique about The Making of Asian America is perhaps the way in which it is a global account. We learn not simply a story of immigrants in America, but who people were before they came and what complex international factors lay behind their immigration. We see their relationships to those who remained behind and the ways in which actions differed by gender.

As Lee establishes, Asians in America represent a startling variety of people coming from at least 23 distinct groups. They also differ in when, why, and how they came and in whether or not they accepted their place in the unequal society of the United States. And yet some generalizations about them are possible, in part because Americans defined them as a common race, backward, inferior, and submissive. Their race denied them the right to citizenship; although some Asian families had been in the United States for generations, they were still considered outsiders. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, Asians have entered the country more freely and enjoyed more rights. Many of them remain global citizens, cherishing their multinational identities.

Asians started to arrive in North and South America as slaves and seamen during the years of Spanish Conquest in the 1500s and 1600s. The Spaniards were headquartered in Manila, and ships crossed and recrossed the Pacific, sometimes leaving Chinese and Philippines in what would become the United States. As the British Empire grew, laborers from India were brought to the Caribbean. Along with Chinese “coolies” they labored in the sugar fields. Some came to Louisiana. As plantations spread across Hawaii, various Asians came temporarily or permanently and it eventually became a stepping stone to mainland America.

The major wave of Asian migration to America occurred in the 1800s, despite strident efforts to contain or prohibit it. These were years of vigilantism against Asians when laws were passed to restrict their migration and land ownership. Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island’s purpose was to turn back those who would enter from Asia. Some migrants did settle and have small scale success, but even these gains seemed to threaten settlers of European descent.   Lee adds many unfamiliar stories that fill in our picture of Asian migration, such as those of Koreans escaping the Japanese who had conquered their nation. She tells of people of the Philippines who resisted U.S. military takeover to become a possession with the right to migrate to the mainland. Eventually they were granted postponed independence so that migration could be controlled.   My favorite section was about the Chinese’s migration into the United States across the Rio Grande from Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol was initially created to stop their arrival.

World War II was a turning point in migration history. While Japanese were sent to concentration camps, some older prohibitions against Asians broke down fist for Asian wives of U.S. service men and then others. In 1965, new national immigration laws were passed, and increasingly Asians came to the United States. Some of them were held up as “model migrants” but others continued to be harassed and rejected, especially after 9-11. Lee views this more recent migration as more global than earlier ones, with some immigrants arriving after living in several countries and some maintaining close ties to their former homes. She suggests that these “transnational” individuals challenge us to rethink what it means to be an American.

Although I am not an expert in migration history, I researched and wrote a book, Asian Texans, which dealt with those who have come to this state. It would have been a better book, if Lee’s survey had been available. I am simply thrilled to see it available now. I recommend it to a wide readership. It is the kind of book that can reshape how we understand who we are.

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, Amy Witting.

May 19, 2015

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop, by Amy Witting. Text Publishing Company, 2015.

Australian Women Writers

4 stars

A perceptive and entertaining novel by an Australian writer about a young woman learning to appreciate herself while recovering in a tuberculous sanitarium.

Amy Witting was the pen name of Joan Austral Fraser (1918-2001). She turned to writing after years of teaching and caring for her family. She wrote several novels displaying her ability to observe and sharply to describe those around her. Her writing was part of the introduction of urban stories to primarily rural Australian literature. I for Isobel was her best known novel, featuring a girl abused as a child growing up and seeking her own place in the world. Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop follows this heroine as she tries to become a writer. Still struggling with her painful childhood, Isobel is a lonely, isolated young woman who wants to become a writer. At first she seems to be about to fall apart emotionally, unable to deal with the “dead space”. When she goes to buy some much needed food, she collapses on the street and is taken to a hospital where she is diagnosed with a high fever from tuberculous. She spends the ensuing months in a TB sanatorium where she interacts with a rich variety of staff and other patients. Gradually she realizes her own value and worth and heals from her emotional scars. Witting had also spent time in a TB sanitarium which gave her, like Isobel, a time of quiet and peace in which to grow. Both of the Isobel books were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, and Witting has received wide acclaim.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who like bright and telling detail about their fellow human beings. I look forward to finding and reading I for Isobel and her other works.

Thanks to Text Classics for reprinting Witting’s books and for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.

Hild, Nicola Griffith.

May 17, 2015

Hild, Nicola Griffith.  New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

FAVORITE — 5 stars

A wonderful historical novel, set in seventh-century England and centering on a powerful woman, niece of the king, his seer, and the “illuminator” of him and his people through a time of turbulent change.

This book is historical fiction at its best. As Nicola Griffin relates, she has learned everything knowable about the time and place of her story. Within the structure of what can be known she imagines what might have been. She does not write counter to what is factual history, but uses it, not as a fancy backdrop, but to structure and shape her narrative. What she writes is fiction, held in check by the facts; exactly as major European historian, Natalie Zemon Davis, describes.

The result is a big book, big enough to weave together a multifaceted narrative of the public and private lives of individuals and peoples. It has the power and charm of big novels to hold you for days of reading and delving always deeper into big questions of what is happening and why. There is violence and love, loyalty and betrayal, constantly changing factors to be evaluated and addressed. It presents a highly gendered world in which Hild, as seer and royal niece with both “skirt and sword” moves between the spaces of men and women.

In the seventh century, England was a land of many small kingdoms locked in constant tension and frequent war. Beneath the court elites and warriors were those they ruled, the wealt, people analogues in some ways to the indigenous peoples of later colonial periods. These were the ones who served and yet were invisible to those who used and killed them. Primarily this was an agricultural society but the power of trade and the early industrial weaving were beginning to be seen as valuable.

In addition, Christian missionaries, in increasing numbers, were entering the country, using and being used in the kings’ constant games of power. While some churchmen were greedy and abusive, others became part of Hild’s network of friends. Even more important than their presence and the connection with the world beyond England, they brought with them the written word, and possibility of correspondence with those who were absent.

Hild herself is a fascinating character. Her mother had dreamed of her being the light of the world. Growing up, she is close to the son of her mother’s woman, a man who remains significant in her life, but more as an alter ego than a romantic lover. From an young age she is significant but vulnerable within her uncle’s court. Within the women’s quarters, she has a strong supportive friends, but she can never by completely like them. She is also a strong woman, functioning in the men’s world of governance and battle. Hers is strictly gendered world, but one in which she faces troubling questions of responsibly and guilt over who lives and who must die for the good of the whole. She raises moral questions unavoidable to all who led, questions about who must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

A woman living and serving at the edges of her own world, Hild devotes herself to searching for the over-riding patterns that shape events. Her ability is not really magical, but a sensitivity to what is often overlooked by others. She is not particularly interested in religion. Although she formally converts to Christianity because her uncle demands it, she remains less concerned with spirituality than the actions of the priests who focus their hatred on her.

This is a well-crafted book that simultaneously weaves together high adventure and meditations on power and injustice. Well-drawn and varied characters react to an ever-chancing political environment. It is also a lush and sensuous book, with sexuality between women and between women and men. Even more, Hild reveals a bodily awareness of places and weather and events.

Nicola Griffith is an English woman, now living in the United States. She has previously published several other novels, less ambitious than Hild. Her Ammonite is a rich, utopian fantasy, set in a world where only women can survive. It was of the first books I read and reviewed for my blog. Recently re-reading it, I am enjoying as much as I did on my first reading.

I forcefully recommend Hild and Griffith’s other books to many readers. I am thrilled that Griffith is at work on another volume about Hild and her world.

Love Maps, Eliza Factor.

May 15, 2015

Love Maps, by Eliza Factor. Akashic Books, 2015.

4 stars

A wonderful novel about a woman caught between her dynamic sister and her husband; an exciting book about love, pain, and the possibility of forgiveness.

In 1997, Sarah is an art teacher, raising her seven-year-old son, Max. Her story moves back and forth between her present situation and eight years earlier when she met Phillip, Max’s father. Then she had been a rising star on the New York at scene, her paintings including her unique “love maps” of her subjects important encounters. Her sister, Maya, who had always overshadowed her as a performer and a life force, was very much a part of her life. When Sarah met and fell in love with Phillip, she didn’t know how to handle both of them at once. “She feels like such a different person with both of them. What will she do when they are in the same room? She feels like she might split right down the middle.” Tragedy ensued, and Sarah is still dealing with her choices when Phillip reappears in her life and that of her son.

Eliza Factor is a fine writer capable of developing an original plot filled with unexpected twists and turns. She captures deep and complicated emotions in a few sharp phrases and is a delight. Love Maps is her second novel, loosely linked to The Mercury Fountain, an historical novel set in the mercury mines of far west Texas. Factor lives with her family in Brooklyn. One of her three children is disabled in multiple ways, and in response, she has created Extreme Kids and Crew in order to bring together other families with similar challenges.

While most of Love Maps takes place in New York City and its suburbs, one section is about the land and people of the desert region of West Texas along the Rio Grande, a place where I live and that I love. Factor not only does well describing what the landscape looks like, she also captures something of its essence and its impact on those who come there. From her godmother’s ranch, Sarah talks to her agent back in New York and imagines him in the cliffs and open deserts she sees around her.
She thinks the sky out here would crush him. It’s so vast. It would crush the entire scene—the art and the artists and the critics and the collectors, they’re all dependent on the smaller scale of Manhattan. There you compare yourself to a building; here you are up against the earth, the mountains, the fucking galaxy.
I have to appreciate any author who understands that.

This is a masterful and delightful book that I strongly recommend to other readers.

Thanks to Akashic Books for sending me a copy of this book to review and for publishing such exciting authors.

The Gay Revolution, by Lillian Faderman.

May 12, 2015

The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman.  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Four stars

An essential book about the movement to include gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in U.S. society from the 1950s to the present.

Lillian Faderman has long been a leading figure researching and writing about lesbian history. In the early 1980s, she began publishing books that introduced us all to lesbians from the past giving a historical validation to the lesbians who were suddenly speaking out around us. Since then she continued her careful scholarship and has won numerous awards for her books. Now, in The Gay Revolution, she tells a comprehensive story of the movement for lesbians, gay men and other sexual outsiders to be fully accepted in U.S. society.

This is a massive 8oo-page book surveys an enormous story (660 pages of text, 140 of notes), but it does not read like a survey. Faderman is primarily a storyteller and her book reads smoothly and easily. She skillfully structures her narrative in chapters, each focusing on a particular time or situation. She herself lived through these years as a lesbian in a long-term relationship. In addition she relies heavily on an immense body of interviews that she and others of collected. She tells her story from the viewpoint of those who led the movement, bringing life and excitement into events. Because of her interviews she is able to describe participants as they saw each other so we can understand individuals and sense how their personalities helped or hurt their relations with others.

The book opens with accounts of the brutality and aggression of those out to destroy homosexuality in the 1950s, a time when everyone from the F.B.I. to local police assumed that those attracted to others of the same sex were destructive to American life. Because they were viewed as threatening to American values, lesbian and gays were methodically tracked down and locked up on jails or mental hospitals. Careers and lives were ruined as public opinion was widely supportive of such measures. Changes came gradually with such treatment of gays still occurring even after legal battles were achieved.

As Faderman explains, homosexual individuals belong to all segments of American life and it is no surprise that their internal strife was a part of their movements. While her overall sympathy with their cause is obvious, she writes of the divisions within the movements with fairness and clarity. When gays and lesbians first began to protest their treatment as “criminals or crazies,” they were careful to present themselves as respectable. They wore suits, dresses and high heels and kept their early protests with dignity. Then in 1969 at Stonewall, a crowd of predominantly gay men fought back when police tried to raid a gay bar. Like other movements of the 60s and 70s, the movement split into reformers who sought change within the established power networks and those who took to the streets fighting and provoking those whom they viewed as oppressive. Often they used humor and ridicule to call attention to the denial of their basic rights, practices continuing into ACTUP and gay Pride parades.

An additional division surfacing near the same time was over gender. Lesbians had not been as politically active as gay men, usually being about a tenth of the membership of movement organizations. Even before the rise of feminism, they began to be resentful of how gay men tended to use them while ignoring their issues. They were uncomfortable in the predominantly male atmosphere of gay events. Distinguishing themselves from gay men and straight women, they became the radical edge of the emerging Women’s Movement.

Local campaigns led to small legal gains for gays and lesbians in places like Houston and California. A nationally important achievement was the removal of the definition of homosexuality as pathology by the American Psychology Association. But, as Faderman explains, backlash developed. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual activists fought for family values for themselves. They worked for the rights granted married heterosexual couples, like the right to care for their lovers. Discrimination in the military was another cause for which they fought. The hard work and involvement of the LGBT community and their bravery in speaking out about their identity has led to a major shift in their acceptance in the country today. As I read this book, the U.S. Supreme Court was contemplating making marriage for lesbians and gays legal throughout the country.

I strongly recommend this book. I am not sure that it is “the definite” book of the subject as the publishers claim, because its subject to too big for any book to cover in one volume. Some individuals not included will probably have different stories to tell. The book tells the public story of the fight against discrimination. Others are needed to tell more about daily life for homosexuals in this period. None the less, The Gay Revolution is essential to anyone ready to know more about what sexual diversity has meant in the United States and how a movement developed that challenged its discrimination. Admittedly it is a big book and reading it all is a major commitment. Even readers who only sample a section or two of the book will find it rewarding.

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Bryne.

May 9, 2015

The Girl in the Road, by Monica Bryne.  Broadway Books (2015),  Paperback, 352 pages.

FAVORITE  5 stars

Compelling speculative fiction about two women, each on her own road, one crossing Africa from the Pacific to Ethiopia and the other walking across the Arabian Sea from India.

The book is set in the near future where new technologies are widespread and a larger spectrum of sexualities are practiced. There have been some shifts in global populations and domination. Climate change and competition over energy abound. This is not a dyspeptic world, as the author notes, but “The problems of 2068 are just the problems of 2015, writ large.”

Two dark-skinned women engage in their separate quests, each with adventures along the way. Both their mothers have died. Meena is an Indian woman in her twenties who leaves southern India heading for Ethiopia where her parents had been murdered. Nursing snake bites on her solar plexus, she walks “the Trail,” an innovative bridge of metal hydrogen spanning from Mumbai to Djibouti.(pictured on the book’s cover). Her journey is long and often boring, leaving her to her memories and imagination. She comes to consider her encounters on the Trail as the chambers of a temple leading her to Enlightenment. Marianna is only a child of seven when she crosses the Africa continent, also headed to Ethiopia and accompanied part of the way by a woman who seems to be a goddess who mothers her. She carries a pain “between her heart and her stomach” from a bit of a snake she ate. When she reaches Abba Addis, she stays, grows up and falls in love. Their journeys are told in alternating chapters and seem unconnected until words and images from one narrative start appearing in the other. Clues build about the connection between women, as chilling possibilities surface about who they really are and what is happening.

Monica Bryne is a young American woman who studied biochemistry at Wellesley and in graduate school at M.I.T.   Her background provided her with the basic knowledge and patterns of thinking to create the technology in this book. Her blurb at GOODREADS notes that she has “a pilot’s license (from when she wanted to be an astronaut), a yoga teacher certification (from when she realized she didn’t want to be an astronaut), and one very-marked-up passport (from when she realized she was an artist).”   Biologically Bryne is not a person of color, although she has deliberately chosen to write about characters that are.  She explains that she tried to write the novel with a white American woman as the central character, but she realized that part of what she wanted to do was to rewrite her readers’ default image of who could be a hero. She chose to write about heroes who were women and brown.  She thoroughly researched her characters’ backgrounds and the places they live while being sensitive and aware of her own identity as white and privileged. There simply were no white people in the book.

Every time I introduced an incidental character, because I was raised in a white supremacy, my instinct was to make it a white man. And in each case I asked myself, “Is there any reason it has to be?” and there’s never an answer other than “it feels right,” which is the smooth-talking patriarchy in a double-breasted suit. So, fuck him. The doctor in South Sudan? African woman. The tourists in Mumbai? Chinese. And so on.

Obviously this was a controversial decision, one which may annoy some readers.  Personally, I think she did a fine job of writing about those from cultures and ethnicities not her own. About halfway through the book, I stopped reading to look up who she was and if she was a woman of color because I thought she might be from reading her text.   Her goal is “writing the world I both see and want to see, and so, helping to create it.”

Aside from Bryne doing the best she can to depict worlds not her own, ethnic differences are simply not the main focus of the novel. When cultural and social conflicts exist, they are not between native and western groups. For example, it is Indians who are threatening to dominate in Ethiopia and demeaning the Africans who live there. Although she does not share their ethnicity, Bryne relates something of her own story through Meena and Mariama. She sees the book as a “translation” of losing her own mother to illness and death when she was the age of Mariama. Themes of abandonment, betrayal and guilt run through her life are central to theirs, giving the book a universal quality.

Bryne has written an enjoyable, important story of adventure featuring strong, likable women of color as heroes. Her book has a strong element of suspense and is hard to put down. Her characters are unique and fascinating.  She handles her complicated plot with easy grace. As much as I was impressed with her writing, however, I was also mildly disturbed by it.  There was more sexuality than I would have chosen, but at least it was never presented in a titillating or arousing manner.  Reading it, I sometimes felt old and left behind by future generations.  I was also troubled by the last section of the book.  Neither woman is the totally positive character she initially seems.  Especially for Meena, hallucinations and the reality of the story blur, intentionally but, for me, unpleasantly.  Bryne handles the uncertainty she has created well, but I was ready for Subu, the man on the Trail whose task it was to “witness for empiricism” and make sure travelers were still sane.  But he is only able to bring back rationality briefly.  Although I admire Bryne’s skill, I craved a neater ending than the one she gave me. The increased uncertainty of the last section gives depth to the book, but readers  should be prepared for a wild and disconcerting ride.

This is a superb book that I strongly recommend, especially to those who like speculative fiction that has diverse characters and raises complex questions.

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