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Mouths Don’t Speak, by Katia D. Ulysse.

June 22, 2017

mouths don't speak
Mouths Don’t Speak,
by Katia D. Ulysse.   Akashic Books (January 2, 2018)  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

Katia D. Ulysse was born Haiti and came to the United States when she was a teenager.  She has taught in Baltimore for 15 years, but for her Haiti is still home; central to both how she understands herself and to her writing.  Her short stories have been published in literary journals and in anthologies.

Her novel begins as the 2010 earthquake hits Haiti.  Jacqueline was born in Haiti, and now living in Baltimore with her husband and toddler daughter.  Her parents were very wealthy, and too concerned with their own lives to give Jacqueline love and attention. Instead they sent her to a boarding school in the United State,s and she remained deeply alienated from them.  Yet when the earthquake hit, she was frantic to hear from them or learn of her fate.  Her husband is a Marine, with problems of his own.  He still has severe post-traumatic stress from his time fighting in the Middle East.  When Jacqueline finally hears from her parents she decides to visit them, despite her husband’s disapproval.  Then the unthinkable happens and each character tries to deal with the new reality.

Ulysse is an intense writer, bringing her readers into the emotions of her characters.   A she tells Edwidge Danticot, she continues to be bonded to Haiti and writes out its traditions.  “I never learned how to be anything other than the Haitian me.”  She uses the Haitian style of storytelling called lodyans which mixes humor and heartbreak.  Her great-grandmother who told stories was her primary influence. (Her interview with Danticot in Salon a wonderful discussion of both writiers and haitian writing generally. )

This a powerful story, but Ulysse but sometime I felt she needed to slow down.  The resolution of issues came too quickly.  Change takes time.  But I do recommend this book to many readers.

The Last Ballad: A Novel, by Wiley Cash.

June 14, 2017

the-last-ballad-183203236The Last Ballad: A Novel, by Wiley Cash.  William Morrow (October 3, 2017).  FORTHCOMING.

2 stars

A fictionalized account of a young woman whose songs and organizing were part of the strike of textile workers on strike in North Carolina in 1929.

Wiley Cash is a young author who has set this novel in the southern Appalachian Mountains where he was born and raised.  He has written two other popular novels about the people of the region.

Ella May Wiggins, the central figure in The Last Ballad, was a real historical figure, but her life seems almost unbelievable. She was a white woman, raising her children in a tiny black community while working at a textile mill near Gastonia, North Carolina.  When she drifts into a group organizing a strike, she sings a moving song and quickly becomes a leader.  She works with Communist organizers and tries to bring African Americans into the union before she is killed by opponents of the strike.

The lives of the other characters in the book revolve around Ella May.  Presumably they are more fictional than she is.  Certainly they are even more unimaginable.  They include a boy who loses his hand to the textile machine and joins a monastery, a black communist man, and a small mill-owner and his family who take good care of “their” mill workers by building workers brick houses with indoor plumbing.

The writing of The Last Ballad does little to raise the level of the story.  Ella May is a strong, dramatic figure, but the various other stories often overshadow her narrative.  There have been other novels about her which I have not read. I wonder if they are any better.

I am regularly bothered by novels, such as this one, which mix fact and fiction without identifying which is which.  The problem is particularly bad in a novel, like this one, which deals with a known individual involved with explosive issues of race and communism, both of which were used to incite violence against the workers

I read The Last Ballad as a pre-publication digital edition which did not include acknowledgements.  I hope that the final book includes an attempt to discuss the fact/fiction problem.  I also hope that the final publication corrects some of its silly errors.

I do not recommend this rather shallow and sloppy novel.


My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, Aja Monet.

June 7, 2017

“My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter”: An Ode to Mothers, Daughters, Sisters.  Aja Monet. Haymarket Books, May 2017.

3 stars

An angry yet hopeful prose poem by an African American woman who uses language to expand our visions of our world.

Aja Monet is a poet and much more. A young woman from Brooklyn, Monet is a performer, musician, and educator draws on her Jamacan and Cuban roots.  She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, and earned her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011.  Believing that “Education was the village that raised me,” she works with a variety of groups to teach students to find their voices instead get caught up in violence.

Monet uses poetry as a therapeutic tool with at-risk inner city kids, showing how words can empower and encourage holistic healing in youth education. She teaches her students to harness meaning in the world and to transform the world by transforming selves. For examples, see her website at

In My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, Monet uses poetry to delineate the brutality and confusion of inner-city life, especially for women of color.  By facing the pain, she seeks to transform it, to give it wider meaning.  She is particularly sensitive to women’s pain and contributions.  While I honor her for what she does, I had difficulty relating to her words. Her writing left me intensely aware of her youth and my own age.  I understood in a new way how much urban youth need a language that is different than mine.  I wish her luck.

Golden Hill, by Frances Spufford.

June 2, 2017

Golden Hill, by Frances Spufford.  Simon and Schuster, June 2017. Forthcoming.

5 stars

An original and enjoyable novel about the adventures of a bright young Englishman who came to the village of New York in 1746 with a secret mission of his own.

Frances Spufford has published several, well-recieved nonfiction books. Golden Hill is his first novel.  His writing is unique, and I found his book delightful.  Golden Hill is original in plot and in language. I urge others to read it.

In true eighteenth century fashion, Spufford tells the story of Richard Smith who arrives in New York with a bill of exchange for one thousand pounds.  Because the amount is so large, the merchant to whom he presents the bill demands proof of its validity.  Mr. Smith stays in the town for the next six months and stumbles into a series of dangerous adventures.   Because New York is still small with only about seven thousands residents,  he encounters a variety of individuals.

As a totally unknown, but potentially wealthy stranger, Smith is courted by different political factions, makes friends and enemies, and falls tentatively in love.  He is not a bad individual, but perhaps a careless and trouble-making one.  His narrative is full of suspense and surprises.  Readers and eighteenth-century New Yorkers are not told of his identity and goal until the final pages of the book.

Much of the charm of Golden Hill is Spufford’s well-crafted writing.  While he never tries to mimic eighteenth-century style, his language is rather formal and precise, reflecting the world he creates.  Details abound, but never slow down the narrative.  We are treated to a snowfall in New York, the cliffs of the Hudson, and the miserable conditions in the city’s jail, with language which always draws us into the scenes.  When a mob of angry citizens took off after Mr. Smith, we take part in one of most exciting chase scenes I have ever found in a book. In addition, Spufford skillfully describes the characters in the story, often with sly humor about the ridiculousness of the human condition. His historical knowledge is deep and in accord with recent scholarship.

Do read this book.

Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton

May 26, 2017

Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton. Pegasus Books, July 4, 2017. (First Published in England by Head of Zeus, Oct 6, 2016.)

3 stars

A detailed account of the daily lives and material culture of diverse women in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, well-researched and written for non-academic readers.

Elizabeth Norton was born and raised in England. She studied history and archeology at Oxford and earned a M.A. degree in European Archeology.  In addition to being involved in Medieval archeological excavations, she has written over a dozen books about Tudor and Medieval history.  Frequently she has focused on English queens. She has also worked in television and other media. At present she is pursuing a Ph.D. at Oxford.

Although her research is careful and trustworthy, Norton has not focused her career in academia but in historical writing for the general public.  This book on Tudor women is fully and carefully footnoted.  Her history, however, is not structured as a narrative, and she does not engage in theory and analysis about the descriptions she includes.  In fact, she supplies surprisingly little context about the social, religious, and political upheavals of the Tudor period, the shifting religious and economic demands of  a particularly turbulent era.  Norton’s details are fun and often make her historical characters human, but I sometimes found my interest wandering without a stronger conceptual or chronological framework.  At times I felt the this book grew out of the clusters of stories that Norton had discovered in her narratives about English royal women.  Perhaps the stories she tells are not so much “hidden” as those that historians have ignored as insignificantly.

Any feminist would be pleased to see such a clear focus on women, but  the result is somewhat fragmented.  Norton has deliberately chosen to write the composite history of the women of the era.  Unlike some who claim to write composite history, she has made a major effort to include women of all classes and lifestyles.  Royal and aristocratic women predominate, because they are the ones who wrote and were written about.  They are also the ones with the most striking stories.  But Norton also gives us the maids and prostitutes, women merchants and those accused of being witches and heretics.  It is often unclear why the author chose to put the women’s stories under the headings she has chosen, especially when the narratives include several women at different stages of their lives.  The problem of structure is made worse by the non-chronological treatment of the Tudor queens and of religion.

Despite my reservations about this book, I recommend it to readers who cherish the concrete details of women’s lives in the past.

Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xialou Guo.

May 15, 2017

Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.   By Xialou Guo.  USA: Grove, October 2017.  FORTHCOMING

(An English edition was published under the title, Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Vintage, January 2017.)

5 stars FAVORITE

A fine memoir by an acclaimed woman writer who tells of her life as a child in a Chinese fishing village and a small industrializing town, as a rebellious student in Beijing, and as an aspiring filmmaker/writer in London.

Xialou Guo is a highly talented author of novels, poetry, essays, screenplays, and films.  Her writing has been published in both Chinese and English editions and deservedly won a variety of prestigious international awards.  In this book, she tells a rather conventional narrative of her unconventional life. Her writing ability makes her account more than ordinary as she tells of both her own personal and psychological growth and also how she was shaped by the political and social environment in which she functioned.  She attributes her anger, for example, to both her personal rejection by her family and to the totalitarian world in which she grew up.  Nothing completely explains the sharpness of her observations or the wonder of her writing.

Guo was born in 1973 and was given as an infant to adoptive parents.  After a couple of years, her foster parents returned her to her aged biological grandparents who lived in poverty in a tiny fishing village.  The only person with whom she was close was her grandmother who had bound feet and was totally dependent on the husband who had purchased her years before. During these years a Taoist priest foretold that Guo would visit “the nine continents.”  When Guo was seven, her birth parents arrived to take her to live with them so she could go to school.  While slightly more stable economically, she felt rejected by her mother and brother.  Her father, an artist who made communist propaganda pictures, fostered her dreams and was a strong, if often silent, ally.

Unhappy with her family, Guo’s goal became escaping from her parents and the small industrial town where they lived.  With her father’s support, she went to Beijing for tests and became one of eleven teenagers chosen out of seven thousand to study film-making in the city.  Living in Beijing, she gravitated to other young artists who shared her anger and rebelliousness.  After finishing her studies, she scrambled for ways to support herself by writing the scripts for soap operas and publishing her first novels in Chinese.

Another scholarship, again won despite high odds, allowed Guo to go to London to study documentary film-making.  Initially she found the West disappointing.  The weather, the landscape, and the loneliness all depressed her.  Any social life stagnated as she sought to learn English enough to excel at using it to be a writer.  In 2003 she published her first English novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, written at the same time she herself was struggling with the language.  Since its enthusiastic reception, she has gone on to publish other novels, including I am China, which I loved and reviewed. Guo ends her memoir with her own motherhood and her visit back to China where she still sees herself as rooted.

Because Guo embeds her story so tightly in the worlds which she has inhabited, no list of what she did adequately captures her book. Woven together, there is her personal narrative about rejection as a small child and about the early sexual abuse that affected her relationships with men.  There is her anger at the ridiculous limitations placed on her by her Chinese rulers.  There is her awareness of the ways in which Chinese men’s lives were privileged over women’s.  And underlying everything is her deep anger at the injustices she encountered in both the East and the West.  Yet her book is not ugly and angry, but one that managed to create beauty out of the ugliness of life.

I strongly recommend this book because it well-written and engaging and because it tells a story few of us have known.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan.

May 4, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2017.

4 stars

A touching book set in an English village during World War II about women who learn their own strength as they face losses and hardships together.

Jennifer Ryan was born in Kent and later moved to Washington, D.C.  She has worked as an editor.  This is her first novel.  She credits her grandmother for telling stories about how English village women came together during World War II. She is not the Jennifer Ryan who has written numerous western romances.  I wish she had used a middle name or initial to distinguish herself.

As World War II broke out, the church choir in the southern English village of Chilbury lost all its male singers.  Rather than let the vicar shut down the choir, the women of the village came together to keep the songs coming.  In doing so, they also came together around personal problems of romance and motherhood and the bombs and warfare that threatened the whole village

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is a simple narrative organized around fictional diaries, journal entries, and letters which the women and men of Chilbury wrote in 1940.  The characters are believable and interesting although the plot is sometimes unrealistic.  The book is easy and entertaining reading.  For me it is the best kind of “comfort reading.”  It also offers insights on how people respond to major disruptions in their lives.  Some of the characters are generous, capable of reaching out to others in need. For example one of the women reaches out to gay men in ways that are new for her.  Tragedies happen, as can be expected in war, but the women turn to each other. Some of them grow out of their former docility into strong, competent individuals. Although the women remain gentle and unassuming, a subtle feminism runs through the text.

I recommend this book to readers looking for pleasant, insightful fiction.