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Water Tossing Boulders, by Adrienne Berard.

May 29, 2016

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South, by Adrienne Berard.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

2 stars

The unusual story of a Chinese family’s 1924 legal challenge to a Mississippi grade school that refused to allow their daughters to attend, told with additional, but marginally relevant information.

The presence of Chinese migrants in Mississippi after the Civil War is an interesting sidelight in U.S. history.  That a Chinese couple in Mississippi actually challenged the refusal of a small local school to admit their daughters is even more fascinating.  Yet that is the story at the core of Water Tossing Boulders.  Author Adrienne Berard discovered this incident accidentally while looking for her own mother’s more conventionally white family history.  She went on to interview those with any connection to the story and to research every imaginable aspect of the Chinese couple, immigration laws, Mississippi politicians, and even the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River.  While her various findings are interesting and largely accurate, they often seem irrelevant.  They pull away from the people at the center of the book and result in a strangely ununified account.  Although Berard states forcefully that everything she relates is factual, she frequently writes in detailed, impressionistic prose that claims to know everything, down to the smell of the honeysuckle.  As an historian myself, I found it hard to believe that the nebulous feelings she attributes to her characters would ever have left documented evidence.

Adrienne Berard is a freelance journalist and a graduate of Smith College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.   Her articles appear on FOX NEWS.  On her website she claims that  “[h]er work focuses on reclaiming America’s forgotten voices, the silenced, the offbeat, the erased.”  I applaud her goal, in general and in this book, but writing meaningfully requires more than good intentions or ideas. It is not enough to cut and paste a variety of factual snippets.  Such stories need to be integrated into their contexts.  I realize this is not easy, but it can be accomplished.  For examples of how “silenced voices” can be used to enhance larger understanding, I recommend Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon, and  A Lenape among the Quakers, by Dawn Marsh.

I do not recommend this book to other readers.

Chronicle of a Last Summer, by Yasmine El Rashidi.

May 25, 2016

Chronicle of a Last Summer, by Yasmine El Rashidi.  Tim Duggan Books (2016), 192 pages.  FORTHCOMING

5 stars–FAVORITE

A lovely, haunting novel about a girl growing into womanhood as Egypt experiences chaos and violence.

Yasmine El Rashidi is an Egyptian journalist who chronicled the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo in 2011 for the New York Review of Books. Her firsthand reports were later published in book form as The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution. She continues to live in Cairo and write about Middle Eastern Affairs for several prestigious journals.  In addition, she is an editor of the Middle East arts and culture quarterly Bidoun.  Chronicle of a Last Summer, her first novel, captures the fictional life of a family on the edges of the country’s revolution.

The novel is structured in three sections, each depicting a girl moving from childhood to womanhood.  The first is 1984, when she was a young school girl and when Mubarak became president.  Her father mysteriously leaves her alone with her barely functional mother and relatives who produce partial answers to the questions she knows she cannot ask. The next section is 1998 when she is in college, studying film and debating political involvement with a rebellious cousin.  The final section is 2013 after Mubarak’s fall from power and shows how life has changed and not changed.

El Rashidi is an excellent writer, capable of using short precise sentences which reflect the changing age of the narrator.  Throughout she creates a sense of more going on than the narrator knows or tells.  The awareness of danger nearby mixes with sadness and nostalgia.  Although the details which fill the book are of Cairo in a time of change, El Rashidi uses them to make a larger point about how the turbulent times we all experience threaten us directly or indirectly.

I loved this book and strongly recommend it to readers who appreciate a book that is understated and moving.

Thanks to Library Thing for a review copy of this book.

The Intentional Brain: Motion, Emotion, and the Development of Modern Neuropsychiatry, by Michael R. Trimble.

May 21, 2016

The Intentional Brain: Motion, Emotion, and the Development of Modern Neuropsychiatry, by Michael R. Trimble.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.  FORTHCOMING.

An exploration by a neuropsychiatrist of how the brain and the mind have been viewed in “Western Civilization” and how recent research is addressing related issues.

Michael R. Trimble is an emeritus professor of Behavioral Neurology and Consultant Physician to the Department of Psychological Medicine at the National Hospital Queen Square, London.  He has had an ongoing interest in the interface between neurology and psychiatry which he develops in this new book.  In addition to professional writing, he has previously published, The Soul in the Brain.  His work provides a much needed bridge between brain anatomy and humanistic understanding of the soul which he traces back to romanticism.  He provides an unusual account of European/American intellectual history focusing on brains and minds.

While Trimble’s account is fascinating, as a non-scientist I found it difficult to follow.  I applaud his project and the direction of his thinking, but I cannot recommend his new book to general readers like myself.

Thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press for providing me a digital copy of this book to review.

Searching for Islamic Feminism. Elizabeth Fernea.

May 18, 2016

Searching for Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey. Elizabeth Fernea.  Anchor (1998), 464 pages.

4 stars

An American scholar who has long studied Muslim women returned to the Islamic world in the 1990s to interview women about their activities as and for women and their understanding of “Islamic Feminism.”

Elizabeth Fernea first came to the Middle East in the 1950s as the young bride of an anthropologist doing research in a small village in southern Iraq.  As a result of living there for two years, she wrote a very insightful account of her experiences with the village women, women who were strictly segregated from the men.  After returning she and her husband both taught at the University of Texas and continued to spend time in various Arab countries. She continued to write and create films about Muslim women.  In the 1990s she decided to explore the issue of feminism for Muslims. Returning to Muslim regions, she interviewed a variety of women and a few men about the conditions for women in their countries.  Often these were women with whom she was already friends.  She visited Uzbekistan, Morocco, Kuwait, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine. She founded the women of the Iraq village in which she had lived still valued her friendship and that gender segregation had weakened over the years. Returning to the United States, she also interviewed American Muslim women.

What is most clear in the book is that conditions for women in Muslim communities vary enormously.  For those of us who tend to lump Muslims and/or feminists together, we need to absorb this critical fact.  In some places women have rights and benefits that we are still struggling for in the United States.  For example, while most of us assume that feminism is linked to democracy, Iraqi women in the 1990s were grateful to Sadam Hessian for the benefits he established for them by acting as a dictator.

Here and there Fernea found women who strongly identified themselves as feminists.  More generally, however, she found women deeply engaged in efforts to improve women’s lives in ways we might consider feminist in the United States.  But these women often refused to identify as feminists. Women find themselves fighting against the misogyny of both traditional and colonial leaders.  Globally, an easy way for opponents to attack women is to label them as feminists and therefore as American or foreign. Feminism is said to be a luxury for outsiders.

Yet Muslim women are working with Christian and Jewish women to resolve these specific problems rather than attacking particular men.  They struggle with poverty, lack of education or economic independence, oppressive family and marriage laws, and other issues that affect them as wives and mothers. Fernea’s book is full of descriptions of the variety of ways that Muslim women working to improve their own lives and those of other women within their families and religion.

More basically, women in other parts of the world remain grounded in family and religion, in ways that many western feminists do not.  They view western feminists as too secular and too individualistic. They often lump all western feminists together and fail to understand the variety within western feminism. Muslim women, like other post-colonel ones, do make an important point.  For better or worse, the “Western Civilization” differs from other cultures in its emphasis on progress through secular, individualistic efforts for both men and women. Muslim women want better lives, but they do not define them as most of us do.  They particularly resent western assumptions of what they need.

Fernea does not provide us with a neat picture of Islamic feminism.   In fact she remains ambivalent over whether such a thing exists.  Instead she ends her book with useful comments about feminism in general and how her project showed her the need to reconsider how we define it.  In her travels, she observed the limitations of mainstream western feminism and our need to listen respectfully to others.  The novels I have been reading have convinced me of the same point.

I gladly recommend Searching for Islamic Feminism to readers interested in the lives and projects of Muslim women.  Its information was collected twenty years ago and may be somewhat dated, but much of what Fernea observed continues to be valuable.



The Ninja’s Daughter: A Hattori Hiro Mystery, by Susan Spann.

May 10, 2016

The Ninja’s Daughter: A Hattori Hiro Mystery, by Susan Spann.  Seventh Street Books, 2016.  230 pages.  A Shinobi Mystery.  Forthcoming

 4 stars

An enjoyable mystery, one of a series, set in medieval Japan about a translator and special protector of a Portuguese Jesuit priest who helps him solve crimes.

Susan Spann is an American author with a deep love and appreciation of Japanese history and culture.  Medieval Japan is the setting of her mystery series featuring Hattori Hiro.  With her deep knowledge of the era, she immerses her readers in life and traditions of Kyoto at a time samurai were fighting for control of the city.  She writes well, giving us lots of historical details without slowing down the building tension of her plot.

Hattori Hiro is a Japanese shinobi, or ninja, who is assigned to protect a Roman Catholic priest from Portugal.  Posing as a translator, Hiro uses his special training and clan vows and, along with the priest, sorts out complex crimes that occur in their city.

When a young woman is found dead, the police refuse to investigate or consider her murdered because she belongs to a family of actors who are not valuable enough for them to care. They also forbid Hiro and the priest to investigate. The demands of the police do not slow Hiro and Father Mateo down, especially when they discover that the woman is the daughter of another shinobi.  Numerous suspects complicate the mystery and widen the story’s picture of Japanese life.  The mystery is complex enough to keep readers focused on the plot at the same time it reveals the personalities of the characters.

Writers and reviewers often complain that historical novels should reflect the degrading sexism of another time and place.  Spann offers an example of of how an author writing about a time when stereotyping was thought to be acceptable can avoid supporting such attitudes today.  She allows some of her characters to express demeaning remarks about both actors and women generally that would have been typical of the time and place of her novel.  Wisely, she balances such remarks with negative portrayal of the characters expressing them and with more positive, inclusive comments by the priest and other outsiders.

I love good mysteries, like this one, that are set in communities which stretch our cultural boundaries.  The Ninja’s Daughter is Spann’s fourth mystery about Hiro.  I look forward to finding the previous ones in the series.  Here and there references to the previous novels left me confused.   I would have enjoyed the book more if I had found the list of characters and the glossary of Japanese words printed at the end before I started the book.

I gladly recommend Spann’s Japanese mysteries to all those who like diversity embedded in plot.

Thanks to Seventh Street Press and Eidelwiess for sending me a digital copy of this book to review.

Other examples of this kind of mystery include Mala Nunn’s novels set in South Africa and Attica Locke’s stories about African Americans in Louisiana. See my blog for reviews.


The Gilda’s Stories, by Jewelle Gomez

May 4, 2016

The Gilda’s Stories, by Jewelle Gomez.   City Lights Publishers (2016), Edition: Anniversary ed., 288 pages.

3 stars

Unusual stories of a slave girl who ran away and joined a group of benevolent vampires as she searches for community and caring with humans and other vampires.

Jewelle Gomez has published poetry, fiction, essays and plays.  She has also lectured and taught widely and been active in the literary world administrating a variety of projects.  She first published The Gilda Stories twenty years ago and was awarded the Lambda prize for it.

When a slave girl escaped, she was rescued by a kindly woman who brought her into her own community of women. Eventually she transforms the girl into a vampire and names her Gilda after herself.  Gilda goes on to travel across time and place as a black woman vampire who, like other vampires in her group, always gives something to those from whom she takes blood.  Because she is so long-lived, relations with humans are difficult.  Yet Gilda seems very human in her attempts to find or create a place for herself in specific American locations.  Some of those she loves are other women.

Although vampire stories can only be fantasy, The Gilda Stories succeed in conveying what it has been like to live through American history as a black woman lesbian.

I recommend this book to readers with the imagination to appreciate black vampires.



Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, by John P. Langellier.

April 29, 2016

Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, by John P. Langellier.  Schiffer Military History (2016).  224 pages.

3 stars

A collection of information and photographs about the African American soldiers who served in the American West.

John Langellier is an amateur historian who has long been fascinated with the Buffalo soldiers.  He has collected numerous stories and photos about them which he includes in his new book.  He should be commended for what he has found, but his ability to organize his material creates problems, especially for casual readers.  His book does not follow an overall narrative structure, and does not include shorter narratives of significant individuals.  Regimental assignments to different locations in the West shape the first section. These are followed by chapters highlighting topics like life in the garrisons, enlisted men, officers, and chaplains.  Langellier discusses African American men in military service in the early twentieth century and praises their contributions. Excellent photographs, some of them unfamiliar even to those familiar with Buffalo Soldiers, add to the value of the book.

The African American troops who fought for the US Army are an important part of our national past.  They deserve to be better known and understood, but many other books, both scholarly and popular, do a better job of telling their story than Langellier does.

Fighting for Uncle Sam will appeal primarily to those who share the author’s admiration for the Buffalo Soldiers.


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