Skip to content

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.

Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, by Feminista Jones.

November 11, 2018

Reclaiming Our Space
Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, by Feminista Jones. Random House, January 2019.

5 stars  FORTHCOMING MUST READ

A brilliant account by a leader of the new wave of Black Feminism, writing about how the movement is revolutionizing and community building in social media and on the streets.

Feminista Jones is the online name of Michelle Taylor, a social worker in Philadelphia and a compelling voice of the new online Black Feminism.  As she relates in her new book, she grew up in Queens, where her mother insured that she received the best possible education.  She attended boarding school and an elite Ivy League college.  She has been married, divorced and has a young son. Involved early in social media, she has won frequent awards for her innovative online activity.  She is an excellent writer, concise, deep, and sheer fun.

I am a white women grounded in the Feminism of the 1970s and interested in Black Women’s History.  I have watched from a distance as young, African American women, like Jones, have appeared in the forefront of recent protest movements.  I am grateful to Jones for explaining to me and others like me how and why they have achieved this prominence.  Theoretically, Jones points to the work of the Combahee Creek Collection in the 1970s to explain their “intersectionality,” the fact that race and gender intersect constantly in the lives of women of color.  Neither can be discarded or acquired at will, making black women essential for the liberation of all people.

Social media has broken down some of barriers between women according to race, age, sexual orientation, and education.  Under-educated women of color can have their experiences validated as they provide academics with information about the contours of their lives.  Jones herself is evidence of a previously rare mix of influences as she moves in the language of social media and of abstract theory. She carefully lays out the innovative ways in which Black Feminists have used Twitter to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.  She shows also how they have developed its capacity to explore ideas and experiences in ways which revolutionize community organizing.  For example, she shows how a comment she made when witnessing a woman being harassed on the street turned into a massive campaign in which women shared experiences and spoke out about the problem under the hashtag #YOUOKSIS.  She explains how “live twitting” can allow hundreds of people to become a community by sharing tweets during a performance or event.  Jones sees such activities growing out of the daily habits for survival of black women.

♈️☀️~Femme~🌙♌️

Jones addresses specific sections of the book to black men and white women, explaining to each group why Black Feminism is essential.  For years both of these groups have deliberately forced black women into distinctly subordinate roles.  Black women have been forced to choose between their identity as women or as blacks.  Setting up such a dichotomy is a way to avoid facing their needs and their anger from always being both.  Jones also addresses a variety of other concerns that tend to cluster in particular ways for black women, such as black motherhood.

Feminista Jones is a fine writer with a sure touch for the meaning of word or phrase.  I may disagree with her here   and there, but she has strong evidence for the positions she takes.  She is ever ready to admit to having changed her mind on some issues.  Her writing is generally easy to read and fun. She does, however, frequently write with words and styles that are unfamilar to readers like me.  Phrases from “Black English,” computer jargon, and abstract feminist theory are intermixed in her prose.  I loved the mix and all it signifies about crossing boundaries, but some readers may be annoyed.

Although Jones warns readers that we are all human and imperfect, she sometimes makes twitter and other social media too good to be true.  Yet if there is any truth in her descriptions of an expanded variety of women more engaged and involved in each other’s lives because of social media, we are all better for the process.  I strongly urge others to read this book, especially those for whom African American women and social media exist in worlds that seem distant from our own cloistered white neighborhoods.

RELATED RECOMMENDATION:

Good and Mad, by Rebecca Taister.

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister

November 7, 2018

Good and Mad
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, by Rebecca Traister. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

5 stars  MUST READ

A ground-breaking book by an insightful political reporter examining how women’s public anger has been downplayed and punished while that of men has been praised and encouraged.  She validates women’s political rage, but warns that their silencing is not stopped.

The political expression anger of women is not something new.  We simply have been taught to ignore it and its power.  Traister honors women’s anger, past and present, as valid, and expresses her own outrage at punishment doled out to angry women while angry men are praised.  Showing a strong understanding of American women’s history, she points out what women have achieved by getting angry in the past even though they have been rendered invisible in their rage.  Traister also describes how women have sought to mask their anger in public spaces by claiming they are following God’s commands or that their position as mothers justifies what they saying and doing. She quotes women who use humor to make their rage seem laughable and unimportant.

Interviewing women involved in politics more recently, Traister provides forgotten details about how their anger has been expressed and dismissed.  As she points out, the wave of feminism in the 1970 allowed a few women to express their anger over gender expectations in outrageous words and gestures.  But their anger became one of the biggest reasons for others to dismiss all that feminists were attempting.  In gaining a foothold in new professional arenas, many of us have stepped back from open anger.  As individuals, we have gained acceptability and change by lowering our voices and appearing compliant.  Christine Blasey Ford’s ’s appearance before the congressional committee is an example of this approach, though many of us have used and are using this technique.  The response to Ford is an example of the limits of this technique.  Since Trump’s election, younger, more varied women have come to the fore to fight for causes and in ways that my generation has not dared address as we entered previously male spaces. This time we all need to stop muting our own rage and support the next generation of angry women.

Traister is particularly articulate about the ways in which race and gender intersect. She is aware of the new discussions of what it means to be white, and she urges white women to realize they need to be more responsive to what they can learn from black women.  In discussing the Women’s Marches after the election of Trump, she also points out how which media coverage assumed that black and white women could not achieve enough unity to be effective.  In response, Traister describes how some black and white women worked together work together as abolitionists before the Civil War.  She also describes the friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglas at the time when women suffrage supporters were fighting each other over universal versus black male suffrage.  Emphasizing the anger that can unite us is critical in the face of those who would divide us.

Good and Angry focuses on women’s anger in the public, political arena, not on their anger in general or in private.  Traister concentrates primarily on anger as a tool for coming together and changing the social structures and behavior that regularly restrict and oppress women.  Ending the double standard about women’s and men’s anger would be a critical step to give women a equal voice in our alleged democracy.

A long section of the book deals with the anger of the @metoo movement, and the dilemmas it raises.  While Traister is fully supportive of the validity of women’s rage, she also sees the complexity of the issues.  Should we release our pure anger at all men or may there be legitimate reasons not to remove men from power who have supported women in spite of relatively minor harassment?  If we support such men, however, we must that makes us complicate in a system that supports their behavior.

This book is full of quotable lines and insights for women who are seeking to explain and express their anger in public forums.  Traister is unusually sensitive to complexity and the shifting meanings of words. Rather than tell women to be angry and vocal or quiet and safe, she is exploring the middle ground, a place where we can converse and create, a place where contradictory stories can be seen as true.

At times I wanted more structure in her writing and clearer statement of what women should do with their anger. I wanted neat answers.  Then I realized that this book is not about neat answers.  Traister’s strength is that she sees and writes about the sheer complexity of women’s public expression of a demand for a place in politics and the ways in which that demand has been denied.  Hers is a work in progress and all of us need to join in the discussion.  We need our varied voices to find ways to support each other when we speak out rather than allow others to silence or destroy us all and what we believe in.

This is a book we all need to read and discuss, whatever our views on gender and politics.  The 2018 midterm election has raised the willingness of women to be “good and angry.”  If democracy is to survive, we need to be sure that women, all women, have a viable place in politics.  Those of us who have been activists in the past need to support the angry women of this generation of those who would change the world right now.

RELATED RECOMMENDATION:

Reclaiming Our Space, by Feminista Jones.