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Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

February 28, 2017

Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.  Transit Books (2017), 446 pages.

5 stars

A compelling family saga by a Ugandan woman about a curse inherited by later generations of Ugandans.

Jennifer Makumbi was born and raised in Uganda where her father was a victim of Idi Amin.  She grew up and taught in the country before earning her Ph.D. and teaching in England.  Her writing is deeply embedded in the lives and legends of the people of her country.

Her book begins in the 1700s when Kintu was a local leader of his tribe.  In the course of his life, he and his descendants are cursed.  Then the narrative shifts to the experiences of several branches of his family in the near past. Names of the original family are handed down, sometimes in variations, twins persist in each generation and the curse plays out in their lives.  Each family story is told in detail with a few minor connections between them.  As the book ends, individuals from each part of the family come together to try to remove the curse.  As always with good literature, the results are full of ambiguity and surprises.

Makumbi is a talented writer able to engage readers in the stories of her characters, even when those stories are foreign to them.  The book abounds in Ugandan names and places. Characters often go by several names. Myths and traditions unfamiliar to non-Ugandan readers appear. This is a book centered on Ugandans, with minor references to colonization.  And yet the characters are strongly depicted, allowing all readers access to their lives.

I cannot claim to have fully understood everything in this book, but I enjoyed it and gladly recommend it to others.

Voices of the Survivors, by Patricia Easteal.

February 22, 2017

Voices of the Survivors, by Patricia Easteal. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 1994.  262 pages.

4 stars

A powerful report on a survey into sexual abuse of Australian women, many of whom tell their own stories of pain, struggle and sometimes healing.

In 1992 Australian Broadcasting System aired a program, Without Consent, about sexual abuse.  Accompanying it was a questionnaire that women who had been abused were asked to answer.  Along with their answers, 2300 letters from women and 97 from men wrote letters and comments about their own experiences of abuse.  The responses to that questionnaire and the women’s accounts form the core of this book.  Patricia Easteal, with the Australian Institute of Criminology, has summarized the findings and provided context for the women’s own stories.  She has also published a large number of previous books, many of them about women and criminal justice.

All those connected with the original study and those at Spinifex Press are to be congratulated for the effort that went into the project and its publication.  Although the actual data was collected almost 20 years ago, too little has changed.  Conditions depicted here are all too common in many countries besides Australia. This book is part of a vital, ongoing effort to educate a wider swath of society about the damage caused by sexual assault. Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching, yet the problem continues.  Here women are able to give voice to their own stories and receive validation for what they have endured.  Hopefully their voices will allow other women to recognize sexual assault in their own lives and society will begin to take them more seriously.

This is a significant book, but it is not an easy book to read, partly because of the horrors being described.  In addition, many of the women’s accounts are short, and readers like myself had trouble relating to them.  For that reason I found Spinifex’s recent book, Prostitution Narratives, with its longer stories, even more effective in taking us inside the women who are suffering.  Still, this book has information we all need to understand the world we live in.  I recommend it widely.

And as always, thanks to Spinifex for providing us all with important books that help us understand the plights of women.


Hadriana in All My Dreams, by Rene Depestre.

February 15, 2017

Hadriana in All My Dreams, by Rene Depestre.  Akashic Books. Translated by Kaiama L. Glover. 2017

First published 1988.

4 stars

A magical novel by a prominent Haitian author that is full of life and death, carnival, zombies, and longings.

Rene Depestre was born in 1926 in Haiti.  Educated in Haiti, he was active in political resistance, exiled, and lived much of his life in Cuba and in France.  Primarily known as a poet and for this novel, he is an important figure in world literature.  His writing is bold and inventive; by turns erotic and satirical.  In her introduction to this book Edwidge Danticat notes the supernatural and surrealism elements in his work and how he writes about “the daily mysteries of life.”

Hadriana in All My Dreams is set in Jacmel, the town where Depestre was born and a place known for its unique atmosphere.  The story is narrated by a young Haitian man who relates the story of Hadriana, a beautiful young Creole woman with whom he shares a god-mother.  From the start it is a story about the flexible line between life and death.  Hadriana is to be married to a handsome young man in a wedding timed to coincide with the celebration of carnival.  In the midst of the rollicking anarchy and sexual display, the bride collapses at the altar and is buried.  Death appears in the midst of a celebration of life.  But Hadriana is not in fact dead.  Witch doctors have poisoned her in order to turn her into a zombie.  The last section of the book follows her struggle to escape from zombiehood.   In the middle of the story, Depestre writes a rather serious discussion relating how zombies seem to be what colonizers are trying to achieve with their subjects.  Like evil witch doctors, colonial powers hope to reduce their subjects to an obedient, death-like state where they will do the work they are assigned without challenging it or claiming full person-hood.

Deprestre’s novel is unusual, in my experience, but I can understand why it has appealed to other readers.  It affirms life in the face of death, freedom and sensuality in face of order. Vodou and zombies inhabit the space between living and dying. I recommend the book to readers who are open and flexible to an unusual narrative.  I do not recommend the book to those who are uncomfortable with chaos and public sexuality.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

February 12, 2017

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit. Haymarket Books, 2016.  With new forward and afterward.  First published 2004.

4 stars

A wise call to citizen political activism based on hope of changing the future by being flexible in the present and remembering our past successes.

Rebecca Solnit is a California writer and activist who has published a number of books related to Progressive causes. She is also a contributor to Harpers.  Hope in the Dark was originally written in 2004 as George W. Bush was initiating the war in Iraq.  Added chapters deal with the response to 9/11 and climate change.  The new forward addresses the political situation we find ourselves in today.  While references indicate these particular crises, Solnit’s words have an urgency that transcends them making her book significant as we seek to survive a Trump presidency.

The kind of hope that Solnit advocates is not purely personal or private.  It demands a public response that is essential if we seek to challenge repressive political power.  Hope is about realizing that the status quo is not inevitable.  Because we know that change has occurred before we can hope to bring about change now.  For Solnit, hope is not about ignoring real problems or assuming they can be quickly and easily fixed.  Hope is the knowledge that situations can be changed and that doors can be opened to unimaginable alternatives.  Hope is being willing to stand up to oppression even when we are unsure what our bravery can achieve.  Rather than providing a static alternative, hope allows us to be comfortable with differences.  Hope is being in the struggle for the long-term and realizing that perhaps all we can do is plant seeds for future change.

One source of hope, for Solnit, is to remember that of past movements have led to positive change.  She asks us to remember and honor what people acting outside of government have achieved.  As she notes, the media is slow to acknowledge and cherish the victories that civil action has won.  We ourselves tend to forget what has been gained, instead of commemorating it in our stories.  Solnit devotes large portions of her book to telling about the victories of the past couple of decades. Although I have kept reasonably informed over those years, I was surprised at how many of those stories I had forgot or never heard.  I also appreciated her comments about how we choose to remain cynical and frozen because we can act worldly and safe.

At times, I wished this book had been better written.  It could have been more powerful with fewer quotations and less repetition.  But, despite its flaws, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.  For many of us, the Trump election has been numbing.  We are left wanting to resist a multitude of his actions, but feel stymied.  We need a wise and perceptive voice like Solnit’s to help us regain a sense of empowerment today more than ever.

The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin.

February 6, 2017

The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin.

4 stars

A mystery set in Istanbul in the 1830, full of drama, suspense, and a host of fascinating characters.

Jason Goodwin, born in England in 1964, studied the Ottoman Empire at Cambridge and went on write travelogues of Europe and Asia and a history of the Ottomans.  Then he turned his deep knowledge about the subject into a series of historical mysteries featuring Yashim, a eunuch investigator living in Istanbul in the 1830s and 1840s.  The first novel in the series, The Janissary Tree, won the Edgar Award.  Four additional novels have extended Yashim’s adventures.

Goodwin tells a complicated tale of Yashim searching simultaneously for the killers of several victims.  A young woman in the sultan’s harem was murdered and jewels belonging to the sultan’s mother were stolen.  In addition four young officers in the sultan’s new, reorganized army have undergone particularly gruesome deaths that may be related to imperial polices.  In seeking to solve these crimes, Yashim explores all over the city; in the palace, mosques, the Russian embassy, and the city’s narrow poverty-filled alleys. Friends and enemies of his help and hinder him along the way.  As he searches for those responsible for the murders, Yashim suspects that imperial and international forces are at work.  The Janissaries were once a strong force. Yashim must discover what they intend to do and stop them.

I enjoyed The Janissary Tree and hope to read more of this series, I found Goodwin’s descriptions of his varied characters both probing and distinctive.  Yet I struggled at times with the unfamiliar setting and political situation.  Like Yashim, I needed a good map—and perhaps a glossary or cast of characters.  While the mysteries are key to the plot, the book is much more about the time and place.  I recommend it to readers who like mysteries that bridge cultures.

Re-Membering, by Ann Millett-Gallant.

January 28, 2017

Re-Membering, by Ann Millett-Gallant.  BookBaby (2016).

3 stars

An insightful and wide-reaching memoir by an art historian about her recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

Ann Millet-Gallant has a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of North Carolina and is actively involved in Disability Studies.  Her previous books are Disability in Contemporary Art and Disability in Art History.  She herself was born with hands and feet which were not fully formed, but she had been able to adapt successfully enough to live a relatively normal life and complete her degree.  Then a freak accident with the scooter which she used for mobility resulted in a very serious traumatic injury to her brain.  Her brain injury interfered with her ability to move the rest of her body.  Her sense of her identity wavered. With the help of family and friends, she was able to move on with her life, marrying, doing art, and writing.

Re-Membering is personal memoir, but not a linear account of Millet-Gallant’s recovery. Like the collages she created as art therapy, the book is a verbal collage of personal experience and academic theory, experience, medical information and art.  Millet-Gallant explains that the book and her art reflect her own thought processes as well as the more nebulous theories popular among some scholars currently.  Yet the theory is interwoven with moving accounts of the author’s own sensations and experiences

I would recommend this book primarily for those who have brain trauma or love someone who does.  It could be a valuable reaffirmation that one who suffers is not alone.

While I appreciate receiving a digital copy of this book, the author’s art work was hard to appreciate in this format.  Her works can be seen on her website.


Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, by Mychal Denzel Smith.

January 21, 2017

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, by Mychal Denzel Smith.  Nation Books (2016), 240 pages’

4 stars

An articulate statement of what it means to come of age as a young black man “in a world of “black lives matter” protest, rap, and a black president.

Mychal Denzal is a 29-year-old young African American man who writes for The Nation, as well as appearing in a variety of Progressive program and magazines.  His autobiographical book provides excellent and much needed insight about young blacks creating a new protest movement today.

Any book by a young black writing about himself and his view of the world is bound to be compared to Ta-Nehisi Coates award-winning Between the World and Me. Both Smith and Coates’ books are excellent and much needed especially by those of us trying to understand current black anger. Books are important because they offer different perspectives on racial struggles than that of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Both authors dare to define themselves as “angry young men.”  I strongly recommend that everyone should read both.

But the books and their authors are different.  Smith is more than a decade younger than Coates and he focuses on the issues of the last decade. Coates’s style is more literary, and he focuses on classic questions of protest movements.  The son of a Black Muslim, Coates uses the literary device of writing a letter to his son and, without advocating violence, he points out the inadequacy of peaceful protest.  The son of a retired navy officer with no children, Smith subtitles his book as being about his own education.  He rejects his parents’ teachings of respectability and the need to prove yourself twice as good as whites, an approach he also criticizes in Obama. While understanding and respecting why African Americans have taken such a position, he disappointed and sadden by it.

Like Coates, Smith has been deeply impacted by the violence against young blacks, often directed at violence at other men of his own age.  The death of Smith’s cousin in street violence was a turning point in his life.  Travon Martin and others seen so frequently on TV appear regularly throughout his book.

Smith also moves into issues that Coates doesn’t address.  Unlike Coates he writes forcefully and critically about the aggressively masculine approach that runs through the black protest movements.  He reads and takes seriously black women in and outside the movement.  In addition, he chides the black community for being slow to accept the validity of LBGT lives.  Part of his rejection of respectability politics is that is too exclusive, requiring and accepting white norms rather offering accepting all as equally human no matter what their norms.

The autobiographical element in Smith’s gave me a new sense of what it means for a generation of blacks who came of age during the Obama presidency.  I have seen and heard them before, but Smith gave me a new sense of what it has felt like to be young and black in the crazy racial society we inhabit.  Smith writes openly about his own struggle with depression and the lack of services for a community riddled with violence and death.  Describing his shifting search for a hero, he also conveys his own confusion over what it means to a black man today.

It’s a process of self-creation in a society that has already defined you.  It’s resisting that definition because it denies your humanity.  It’s fighting to live long enough to recognize your own humanity.  It’s fighting to define yourself in your own terms.

In the end, Smith comes to aspire to the simple goal of “being an honest black man and a good writer.”  His book is testimony of his success.

Read it, everybody.

For my local blog readers, there is copy of this book in the church library.