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Essential Essays, Adrienne Rich

June 26, 2018

Essential Essays

Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry.  Adrienne Rich. Norton, 2018


5 stars–FAVORITE

A collection of writings by one of the most significant feminists of the 1970s, a woman who lead us in creating the concepts and words “to find our voices” to speak out as women.

For women like me whose lives were changed by feminism, the movement’s most radical leaders were not those who were always on the front lines of forcing change.  They were a smaller group of women like Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Audre Lord who were finding the words and concepts to talk about how women had been silenced and were now developing the language to talk about their own experiences. For them, language matters. As they revealed, generic male language did not really include women.  Definitions for what it means to be human were developed by men and for men and stressed qualities that society had defined as belonging to men only.  In their poems, essays and books, Rich and the others sought to view life as known by women, and to create conversations honoring who women were.

Adrienne Rich was a poet and literary critic, gradually moving beyond those genres into prose.  In the first essays in this new collection, she writes about others, like Emily Dickinson, looking at them from a different perspective than earlier scholars had used.  By doing so she began to show us what a woman’s perspective could add to what we think we know.  Her book, Of Woman Born, focused on motherhood as rigid confining institution used by society to enforce its goal and motherhood as an experience rich and rewarding and deeply satisfying.  This book, excerpted in the collection, was significant for feminist, who until that time were being silent on mothering, for fear of “becoming our mothers” and choosing not to have children themselves.  The later essays republished here are less well-known and reveal how Rich built on her radical concepts after having initially introduced them.

Sandra Gilbert has edited this collection and written a fine introduction about Rich and her life.  Gilbert herself is an impressive feminist literary critic who has written valuable surveys of women’s writings in English and its place in  traditional literary history.

As we try to survive our present “war on women,” the republication of feminists like Rich must again become part of our conversations about what being a woman.  I am grateful to see books like Rich’s essays reappearing.  I applaud those who made its publication possible.   This book is not simply is historical value.  It is a book that is vital today as we deal with changing gender roles and the ongoing silencing of women.  I strongly urge that it be read and reread by women of all ages and by all men who also care about what the world looks like from the viewpoint of women.

Sick: A Memoir, by Porochista Khakpour.

June 24, 2018

Sick: A Memoir
Sick: A Memoir, by Porochista Khakpour.  HarperCollins, 2018.


4 stars

The narrative of a Iranian American writer about her experience with lyme disease, her difficulty getting it diagnosed and treated and strange ways in which she felt its life-changing impact.

Porochista Khakpour was born in Iran in 1978 to wealthy, educated parents who supported the Shah.  Not able to survive his overthrow, thefamily left Iran while their daughter was still a toddler.  They moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles but her father was an academic whose credentials never provided him with the kind of position he had had in Iran.  Porochista showed her creative ability at an early age, but describes herself as never “at home in her body.”  She went east for college and began a career as a writer and college teacher. Her extraordinary writing ability allowed her to get residences and jobs, but she was chronically attacked by undiagnosed symptoms that threatened both her mind and her body.  Friends and lovers helped her and doctors could track what was happened physically, but no one knew how to end her problems.  Finally she was diagnosed with lyme disease by an eclectic group of doctors and healers in Santa Fe.  Although she was able to teach and write for several years, a car accident left her with a concussion which, in turn, triggered a severe relapse of lyme disease.  As she states in her book, she has no idea what role her illness will have in her future.

The power of Khakpour’s book is her ability to describe the agonizing, confusing details of her disease.  Lyme disease is one of a growing number of severe problems which continue to baffle the medical profession.  Because these diseases and syndromes challenge the neat lines between mind/body, mental/physical, they have been labeled dismissively as “only emotional” and not adequately treated.  Khakpour shows us that such a disease must be taken seriously.  Her symptoms were concrete enough for the medical profession to take try to help her, but they offered little assistance. For Khakpour to give voice to what it means to have such a disease  may help promote the research and respect that these illnesses demand.  I hope so.

Sick is not a happy book. It is far too honest be cheerful.  But Khakpour herself remains a determined and resilient individual, despite her illness.  That in itself makes reading this book a positive experience.  I recommend it to other readers, especially any readers who have dealt with poorly diagnosed illnesses.

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey.

June 21, 2018

The Western Wind
 The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey. Grove Press,  2018.


4 stars

A strange and compelling mystery set in a medieval English village where the priest and his people try to deal with the unexpected death of an important resident.

Samatha Harvey was born in Kent in 1975 and has degrees in philosophy and creative writing.  Her two previous novels have been considered for prestigious awards.  She lives at Bath and teaches Creative Writing there.  She is very knowledgeable about medieval theology and is surprisingly able to write about people’s concepts in ways that are both accurate for their time and relevent  for those of us today who are still bothered by questions of death, evil, and loss, about guilt and responsibilities.

The priest narrates what happens when a prominent villager is drowned.  Was it murder, suicide, or an accident?  For the people of the parish, steeped in the medieval belief system, the real question was whether or not he was in hell, purgatory, or heaven. For them it was a complicated question depending on whether or not he had received “last rites” or met other requirements.   Then the action moves backward day by day until the complicated events surrounding the death are explained. In the process we become involved with the small circle of people in the village. At the same time we are resolving the drowning, a host of other mysteries and misunderstanding are also being revealed.

The Western Wind works well as a hard-to-decipher mystery, but it is also a deeply rooted narrative about human interactions and longings.  Its characters’ religious beliefs will seem strange to most readers, but their humanity and their unanswerable questions shine through the centuries. This is the first of Harvey’s books I have read, and I intend to look for her others.  I strongly recommend this mystery.

River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua.

June 18, 2018

River of Stars
River of Stars, by Vanessa Hua.  Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.


2 stars

An improbable story about two pregnant, unmarried women from China who run away from the home to which they have been sent and hide with their babies in poverty in San Francisco.

Vanessa Hua is a native of San Francisco. Her father is Chinese.  For two decades she has written articles about China as a columnist and reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle.  Her journalism has received a number of awards, and she has published a book of her short stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities.

Hua’s novel features to two very different women. One is a factory worker from mainland China who was gotten pregnant by her boss who wanted a son.  The other is a teenager born in America to Chinese parents who had later returned to Taiwan with her. Now a teenager, she frantically wants to find her baby’s father, another teenager.  The two women meet at a “home” for rich, pregnant Chinese wives who want to give their babies the privileges of American citizenship.  In a moment of chaos, the pair escape the home in Los Angeles and make their way to San Francisco where they take refuge in an old apartment building.  Life becomes a daily adventure as they have their babies and try to support themselves.

Neither the women or plot were able to draw me into this book.  I particularly disliked the section which th young women fake being lesbians.   I assume Hua is better at journalism than fiction.

Buried beneath the Baobab Tree, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza.

June 15, 2018

Buried beneath the Baobab Tree
Buried beneath the Baobab Tree, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza.  Katherine Tegen Books, 2018.


4 stars

Powerful, fictional and factual accounts of the young women captured by Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

Two journalists, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani from Nigeria and Viviana Mazza, from Italy, have joined forces to bring the stories of the captured girls to a wider audience.  The fictional section of the book starts with life in a village of Northern Nigeria where Christian and Muslim families are friends and the daughters attend school together.  Rumors of attacks increase and finally Boko Haram fighters attack the village. Many are killed. Some girls and women are captured and taken to a Boko Haram outpost where they live under horrible conditions and are forced to slave in the fields. As the girls started to menstruate, they were forced into sex with their captors and often gave birth.  Some died and were buried under the baobab tree; years later others are rescued.  Following the imaginative account is a factual account about Boko Harem and information taken from women who had been enslaved.

By making the stories of the captured women personal and real, the authors provide insight to readers who have only read the headlines about captured women.   Both the fictional and factual accounts are written in starkly simple language, language that seems almost too simple for the horrors being described.  The book is intended for Young Adult readers who could easily read it. Digesting the horror may be difficult for some no matter their age. For older readers, the simplicity intensifies the content.  These are narratives many of us do not want to face, but if we hope to prevent such conditions in the future, we must accept what they tell us about our world.

The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles.

June 12, 2018

The Air You Breathe
The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles.  Riverhead Books, 2018

Forthcoming August 2018.

5 stars FAVORITE

An amazing novel set primarily in Brazil about two women, the daughter of the plantation owners and the orphan from the kitchen who run away together to make music on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Frances de Pontes Peebles was born in Brazil. She has studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, taught at the Bread Loaf Writers conference, and held a Fulbright Grant.   Her short stories have appeared in a variety of literary publication, and she received numerous awards for her first novel, The Seamstress.

The structure of the novel is key to holding together its diverse content.  Dorcas, now in her nineties, is the narrator.  She is the last living member of the group who gained fame and fortune playing and singing sambas. The writing is largely chronological with each chapter followed by a poem/song relating to the actions taking place.  Next there is a much shorter section relating what happens at the end of the book.

Dorcas was an orphan who had been taken into the cook on a large sugar plantation in northern Brazil.    With no other children around, she was befriended by Graca, the much loved and spoiled daughter of the plantation. Together they discovered the classical music of Graca’s mother and the native songs of the plantation workers. As teenagers, they ran away to live and worked in the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood.  Their songs haltingly began to earn them enough to live on.  Soon they were found by a small group of men who gathered regularly to play samba.  Garca joined the Blue Moon Boys and became stars.  Dorcas moved into the dual role of manager and Graca’s indispensible assistant.  Then tragedy struck, and each of the survivors had to figure out how to cope.

Peebles’ writing is as lush and flowing as the sambas that her characters love.  The book has a musical quality as well as characters who can articulate what the music and its creation means to them.  I find I am tempted to use expansive words in reviewing it. Yet its grandeur is held in check by the dangers of living on the edge of dreams and ambitions. Peebles is particularly successful at depicting contradictory feelings.  While Dorcas is open to sexuality with both women and men, Garca only chooses men for sexual encounters. Dorcas and Graca are intensely, but not sexually close to each other.  Yet they are never equal.  Their bonds result in a complex mix of hate and jealousy as well as love. Yet at times the music supersedes their conflicts.  I am not really a person who responds easily to music, but in this book I was carried away.

I enthusiastically recommend The Air You Breathe to all readers. It a long novel with lots of characters, but one that is worth your time and energy.

Memories in Dragonflies: Simple Lessons for Mindful Dying, by Lannette Cornell Bloom.

June 5, 2018

Memories in Dragonflies
Memories in Dragonflies: Simple Lessons for Mindful Dying, by Lannette Cornell Bloom. She Writes Press, 2018.

5 stars FAVORITE

The simple story by a woman who recounts unexpected moments of wisdom and joy that she discovered caring for her mother during her final months.

Lannette Bloom is a registered nurse who has worked in medical care for thirty years.  Her mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, and when her problems intensified, Bloom gave up her own job to care for her.  Through the long months, Bloom discovered how, for her, caregiving had become a spiritual journey.  After her mother’s death, she wrote about the experience and then edited her words into a book.

As she makes clear in her introduction, Bloom has not written a how-to-do-it manual; there are no rules for caring. Neither does she analyze what it means to grieve.  She is not sentimental, saccharine, or in denial.  She has not framed her experiences as a conventional memoir. Most simply, she wants to show others what is possible.  “That even within the darkest times of your life, you may find hidden some connection, healing, or—dare I say sacred joy.”

Critics of this book will say that Bloom had it easy. In many ways that was true.  She was privileged. Her family had financial resources that many who care for family members do not have.  Her father and sister were there to help.  At times they had a nurse for her mother.  Bloom could walk away and go back to her husband and family at night. Yet her privileges did not protect her from the pain and loss of watching her mother daily lose elements of who she had been.

Instead Bloom gradually learns that joy and pain are not simply the opposites many assume.  She learns to slow down and listen.  She notices details that she later writes about. The mother and daughter have talks that they had never had before.  Her mother tells stories she has never heard.  Gradually she accepts and follows the slowed rhythm of her mother’s life. Later she acknowledges that the knowledge she needs to live her own life was a gift from her mother’s dying.

Neither Bloom nor any of her family is conventionally religious. When hospice becomes involved, a “Spiritual Leader” begins to visit. Her assistance is subdued and not related to any church or other religious institution. The woman suggests simple rituals signals; a spot to designate as a “sanctuary,” or a lid to put on a clay pot to indicate the mother wants to stop the talking.  Bloom and her mother appreciate her suggestions and presence.

In her subtitle, Bloom says what she is doing is writing about “mindful dying.” Those words are the closest she comes to explicit naming of Buddhism.  Yet Bloom clearly shows that she is learning to practice the simple wisdom that Buddhists call “being mindful.”  This practice is not a religion requiring theological beliefs. Instead she takes mindfulness as simply a practice that can help us find joy in the most painful times of our lives.  In some ways, Bloom has written a book that exemplifies what Anne Stearns writes about in Redefining Aging.

Memories in Dragonflies is a book I recommend to anyone needing to move through and accept dark times, especially facing the mortality of ourselves and those we love.