Monday, December 17, 2018

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

I want to review for you an excellent though often very sad novel by Diane Chamberlain, Necessary Lies. There are two primary  narrative voices. Ivy, a fifteen year old girl who lives on a tobacco farm and takes care of her intellectually challenged sister, Mary Ella,  her grandmother whom everyone calls Nonnie, and her nephew, Baby William, Mary Ella’s infant son. Jane, the other narrator, is a recently employed social worker for the state of North Carolina, and Ivy, her sister and the household are some of her first clients. Jane has just married a doctor who is not at all happy with her taking a job at all, let alone one in which she deals with welfare recipients and even people of color. 

Mary Ella has her baby out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. Mary Ella is a beautiful blond girl who is intellectually challenged, and although the reader is not informed of this until fairly far into the novel, she has already been sterilized (under the pretense of an appendectomy) due to her low IQ, and her being on welfare. Nonnie, the grandmother has agreed to the sterilization because she thinks the family simply cannot afford another baby, and May Ella shows no signs of changing her behavior with the boys who chase after her. Mr. Gardiner, the owner of the tobacco farm allows the family to live for free in a tiny shack on the farm; he also allows a black family headed by a mother, Lita, to live in a similar shack with her three sons, one of whom is almost completely blind. Nonnie lives in constant fear that Gardiner will force them to leave the house and to stop giving them produce (which they refer to as a little something extra). Both girls work on the farm for very low wages, and even the grandmother, much hampered by arthritis, works some in the tobacco barns stripping and wrapping tobacco leaves. 

It is only after some weeks on the job that Jane learns of the eugenics program in North Carolina. She is just beginning to gain the trust of Ivy when she is told by her superior that the state is preparing to take away Baby William. She comes to learn that Mary Ella has already been sterilized, although Mary Ella has not been told, tricked into the procedure and told that she simply had an appendectomy. Ivy is the good girl who worries about the promiscuity of her pretty sister and the declining health of Nonnie. Mary Ella has a wonderful relationship with her infant son, but she is neglectful and the State decides that Baby William is in danger living in the household.

Soon, Jane is fighting on two fronts, fighting her husband and his family over her work which they find unnecessary and demeaning, and her superiors who think themselves entirely justified in performing sterilizations without informing the victims for a variety of trumped up reasons, but most of it coming down simply to their being on welfare. 

Although Ivy does well in school and seems quite bright to Jane (certainly bright enough to keep her family together and fed),  IQ tests brand her her as low normal, and when she, despite her success in school and her general rule of staying away from boys also turns up pregnant, Jane is instructed by her superiors to draw up a petition for sterilization of Ivy at the time she is to give birth to her baby. Ivy has been in love with the Gardner’ youngest son for much of her childhood, and when he insists that by pulling out before ejaculating, she will not/cannot get pregnant, she defers to his “wisdom”. Because Ivy is a minor, she does not need to consent to the sterilization or even to be told about it. Her grandmother is essentially forced into giving permission by the threat of losing her home and her welfare checks.

When Jane informs Mary Ella that she has been sterilized and threatens to tell Ivy what will happen to her when she gives birth, she is summarily fired for insubordination. Her husband wants out of the marriage, and it seems her life is about to come completely apart.

I have probably already told too much of the story, but there are a number of wrinkles I have not touched on and that make for a very complex ending to this novel. What is very clear is that Diane Chamberlain has thoroughly researched the eugenics program in North Carolina, and as she says in her author’s note: 
From 1929 until 1975, North Carolina sterilized over seven thousand of its citizens. The program targeted the “mentally defective,” the “feebleminded,”  inmates in mental institutions and training schools, those suffering with epilepsy, and others whose sterilization was considered “for the public good”. 
While other states had similar programs, most of them stopped performing state-mandated sterilizations after World War II, uncomfortable over comparisons to the eugenics experiments in Nazi Germany. North Carolina,, however, actually; increased its rate of sterilizations after the war.
While in the early years of the program, the focus was on institutionalized individuals, it shifted that focus to women on welfare later on and became a tool for reducing the welfare rolls. It also became more and more targeted to African Americans. By the late fifties, 64 percent of those sterilized were African Americans.

While it is obvious that Chamberlain’s main focus in this novel is the eugenics program, she creates very believable characters and spins out an intriguing story. I applaud her bravery in informing those of us who are not as historically educated as we should be about  this woeful program. 

I know I have painted a bleak picture here, but this is really an excellent novel and one that deserves a wide audience. I have been talking about Diane Chamberlain’s 2013 novel, Necessary Lies. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I think Barbara Kingsolver is one of the most important and socially significant authors of the last fifty years. Her latest novel Unsheltered is not a happy read, but it important and very relevant to our times. Kingsolver is a fine scientist as she shows in her essays, High Tide in Tucson as well as in her many novels. Indeed, the science asides in this latest novel are fascinating even when not essential to the plot.

The novel is really two stories, one occurring at the end of the 19th century, and the other in the present. Iano and Willa have been chasing tenure and job security for almost all of their married lives, and it has so far eluded them.  Their two children, Zeke and Antigony (Tig or Tiger for short) have been forced to live the same itinerant lifestyle as their parents. Zeke, newly out of grad school with massive student debts, has just lost his young wife to cancer, and is suddenly faced not just with that loss, but also with an infant son. Willa and Iano take on the care of the infant and Zeke moves back home. Tig has not quite finished a science degree when she drops out of college and goes to Cuba with her boyfriend. But she, too, without much explanation to her parents shows up on their doorstep, ready to resume her sometimes bitter sibling rivalry with  Zeke. The house they are living in is quickly falling apart and they are told the best route is simply to tear the old structure down and build over the ruins. 

The other story is that of Thatcher Greenwood, his young materialistic wife Rose, Rose’s younger sister Polly and the mother of the two young women, all of whom live in the same house. They, too, are living in a house that is falling apart, and have only Thatcher’s meager income as a high school science teacher to try to shore things up. Both families are very nearly unsheltered with insufficient income to remodel or rebuild. 

Mary Treat is an actual historical figure—an under-recognized biologist and a correspondent of both Charles Darwin and Asa Gray. She is a neighbor of the Greenwoods, and her story is another important strand in the novel. Indeed, I would say that the relationship between Thatcher and Mary is the most intriguing in the book. The New Jersey town that all the characters live in was meant to be a modern utopia, and when established in the 19th century, it was ruled by a more or less benevolent tyrant by the name of Landis who lures people to the village with promises of free land, and then essentially indentures them as their farms and businesses fail and they must rely on Landis and the company store. The  school where  Thatcher teaches is  ruled by  Landis’ handpicked principal who is self-righteous,  anti-curiosity and anti-science; although the principal has not read Darwin and would not consider doing so, he knows that Darwin must be wrong, since his writings conflict with scripture. 

Although the Thatcher Greenwood story predates the famous Scopes trial by a decade or so, there is a wonderful scene in the book in which Thatcher takes on the principal and the pseudo-science he represents. Thatcher, who is genuinely a champion of reason and empirical evidence, is nevertheless socially inept and shy of confrontation. Mary Treat and his sister-in-law, Polly, take it on themselves to school Thatcher on the methods he must use in the debate. Kingsolver shows off her own understanding of the history of science as she describes this debate. Mary is certainly the character most like Kingsolver in the book.

A reader friend of mine whose opinion I greatly respect, has complained to me that the characters in the novel are not filled out well and not particularly convincing. I understand his  position, but I found most of the characters both well drawn and convincing. In fact, one of the reasons I have been vigorously recommending this novel to women friends is that I find the descriptions of the conflicts between Willa and Tig so convincing. Tig accuses Willa of sacrificing her children’s welfare to the continued and unsuccessful chasing of tenure and job-security, moving them from town to town, each time uprooting them and thus interrupting their own growth and social happiness. 
I saw you and Dad doing that, hitching your wagon to the tenure star, and it didn’t look that great to me. You made such a big deal about security that sacrificed giving us any long-term, community.
The accusations Tig throws at Willa, and her uncompromising attacks on her parenting are so like the mother-daughter relationships of two of my closest women friends. I felt the hurt and heartsoreness of Willa so totally.

There are many other features of this book that I haven’t the time to mention. Tig paints for the reader a fascinating picture of Cuba and of attempts there to reuse and recycle. I also very much enjoyed Kingsolver’s obvious jibes at Trump, although she doesn’t call him out by name, referring to him only as The Blowhard or The Mouth, but there is no doubt to whom she is referring. “I suppose it is in our nature, she said finally. “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”

While I personally see the importance of this book as primarily social commentary and championing scientific objectivity, I think it is quite worthwhile simply as an engaging story. I count it as one of the best books of 2018.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

If you have not yet read Colm Toibin, you are in for a treat. Not long ago, I reviewed his magnificent novel, Brooklyn, and today I want to talk to you about another stunning novel, Nora Webster. This is a novel that closely describes the inner mind of a woman, Nora, who, widowed in her late forties, is sole responsible for her home and her four children, only two of whom still live at home.

In my experience as a reader, I rarely find male authors who create believable women characters. Toibin goes much further; he describes in great detail and in first person narrative the stream of consciousness of a woman struggling to recreate herself as an independent woman. Nora is an intensely private person, but given the small Irish town in which she lives, it is difficult to maintain even a modicum of privacy since everyone wants and expects to know other’s business.
“You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbor, stood at her front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
Nora replies that they mean well. 
“Night after night,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”
She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
And her neighbor is not the only person who speaks to her in this new way. She finds she must return to a job she never liked, and work for a man who seems to assume this paternal tone is quite justified. 
Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or to tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.
And further:
In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
And what a fine job of it she does. She takes her family, including the two older girls who are out of the family home, on an inexpensive caravan holiday, and slowly her children come to see the inner strength Nora has, and that they can rely on her. Of course, the process is slow and often so lonely and painful, but she begins to find the joyful person she once was as she goes through the motions of working and dealing with others. The hardest part is knowing what to say to friends, how to socialize, when in the past she had left most of that to Maurice, her much more talkative and social husband. 
At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about a her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But here were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what had happened?
The profundity of this novel is not due to some sudden existential moment, some cosmic insight. Instead it is in the detailed description of how Nora copes and how she literally creates herself. After years of not being musical, she returns to singing, and that is an important step for her in becoming. She finds a singing teacher who urges her to sing in a choir. The teacher, Laurie, comments:
“You know I sang for Nadia Boulanager,” Laurie continued, “and one thing she said was that singing is not something you do, it is something you live. Wasn’t that wise?”
And while Nora does not know how to respond to this at the time, she does come to live her singing, and that along with the growing strength she feels in helping her children and making a home for them allow her to emerge as a self-made person.

I will not provide more of the meticulous description Toibin uses to describe this coming to fruition of a strong and independent woman, but I hope you will pick up the novel yourself and marvel at both Nora and Toibin. The novel is a rather long one, and there is little dramatic action or crescendo, but I found the book lovely and deeply insightful. I recommend it to you along with his other finely crafted books.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Border Crossing by Pat Barker

I want to talk to you this morning about a frighteningly good book by Pat Barker, entitled Border Crossing. Many of you readers will know Barker for her trilogy Regeneration, the third of which The Ghost Road, won the Booker prize in 1995. In the first book of the Trilogy, Regeneration, Barker describes what was then called shellshock, but would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, and the near barbaric ways in which it was treated in World War I. As one commentator puts it, “Pat Barker understands the dynamics of psychic trauma and shutdown as well as any writer living…In Border Crossing Barker brings post-traumatic stress disorder from the literal to the domestic battlefield.”

I will not tell you much of the story, since it is the story, itself, which is so frightening and insightful. A therapist, Tom Seymour is walking and quietly arguing with his wife as he sees a young man jump into the icy Tyne river. He jumps into the river to save the young man without realizing that Danny, the boy he is saving, is the same boy who was convicted of murdering an old woman when he was ten years old, convicted in adult court largely on the basis of Tom’s psychological assessment of him and his ability to understand what he has done. Due to the notoriety of the crime, when Danny is released from prison, he is given a new identity. Tom’s marriage is dissolving as the story begins, and the two main strands of the novel have to do with Tom’s ‘treatment’ of the young man and  the struggle he and his wife Lauren are going through as their marriage unravels.  

Tom is in the process of writing a book on children with “conduct disorder”
It was too easily assumed that such children simply lacked conscience. Of course, a minority did… Many of the children, and most of the adolescents he talked to, were preoccupied—no, obsessed—with issues of loyalty, betrayal, justice, rights (theirs), courage, reputation, shame. Theirs was a warrior morality, primitive and exacting.
In spite of overwhelming forensic evidence that Danny did commit the murder of which he is accused, he claims to have no memory of it, and even after being released from prison, still maintains his innocence. The discussions between Tom and Danny, not really therapy sessions, but more like discussions about morality between adults are wonderfully complex. Barker is able to lay out the inner working of the mind in such incredible rich detail.

I think I will not reveal more of the plot of this short but intense novel, but instead remark that while Barker will, I think, be remembered primarily as a war novelist, her themes are actually much more diverse than that. Her novels about poor Irish women raising their children usually with no help from their men make it clear that she writes from intimate experience. Her early novels, Union Street and Blow Your House Down are every bit as profound and revelatory as Regeneration, though they did not get the critical acclaim deserved.  

Having been mired in contemporary mysteries and romances for a bit too long, it was exciting and refreshing to discover this Barker that I had not read. I recommend all of her books to you and think her one of the most important novelists of the last fifty years. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen

I’m going to talk to you today about a book that so irritated me as I was reading it that I almost stopped several times, and I did put it aside for for a couple of days while I read another book. It is a 2018 novel by Elizabeth Cohen, The Glitch, and upon completion I think it one of the funniest books I’ve read all year. 

Shelly Stone is the CEO of a very successful company called Conch, and I can say that she is one of the least likable characters I have ever met. The conch is a very small device that fits just behind the ear, and is in fact a high power computer that can do a multitude of tasks. Shelly says of herself that stress is the airstream in which she flies. She has a husband and two children, but they are laughably incidental to her real life, which is work. In an early passage of the book where Shelly is with Rafa, her husband, in a restaurant, a rose in a vase has the audacity to sag to one side. She tries to adjust it, but it doesn’t work. “I tried to pretend it didn’t bother me,…But I could tell he knew it annoyed my; that’s one of the problems of marriage, the ability to read the truth off each other’s faces. It obviates all the effort you make to hide how you really feel”.

Shelly is only happy when she is at work, but she takes the entire search for happiness to be misguided.
Rafael is a bit pleasure driven…Pleasure doesn’t hold the same pleasure for me. I get bored and irritable. It takes so long, an appetizer’s enough for me to feel like I’ve had the experience at the restaurant, and lying down for five minutes is  enough of a nap, and I like to schedule sex for when we’re changing our clothes anyway. Then I need to get back to work…pleasure is not something I have much time for, the pointlessness of it, the inefficiency and excess.
While in Barcelona to give an inspirational speech to a group of successful women, her conch seems to exhibit a glitch. For one thing, it identifies a young woman who is approaching her as Shelly Stone, and this initiates a wonderfully absurd sequence of events as she tries to determine if the young woman is, in fact, a younger version of herself. Another client in told by his conch to jump off a cliff, and he does as told. Just as they are about to launch a new model, they have to try to deal with this glitch. That part of the story is complicated and in most ways tangential to the main theme of the novel, which I take to be the incredibly high price women have to pay to enter into the highest power positions in corporations. But while that is (I believe) the serious undercurrent of the novel, it is the wildly funny descriptions of the monomania of Shelly that kept this reader’s interest. Rather than trying to paraphrase some of these sections, I think I will quote some passages that will do a better job of conveying the humor.

An interviewer asks Shelly, “Wow, so you get up at 3:30 every morning?
It’s true, you have to be disciplined to lead this kind of life. Discipline is so important. I’m a grateful hostage to my routines and my checklists. But the truth is, and I’m going to give it to you straight, that when anxiety is ripping is ripping our insides to pieces, it is actually a lot easier to get out of bed than to lie there wanting to die. I can’t sleep—it’s not that I don’t want to. But I need the time, so it all works out. Anxiety has replaced caffeine for me…I’m always; asking myself, how can I fit in a little more work: What else can go, so there’s more time to work? Just because it’s 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. our time doesn’t mean things aren’t really rocking in the Malay production facility, so I check in with some of our vendors and retailers. Making that time count allows me to squeeze in a shower, because it’s important to take time for yourself. While I’m in the shower I brainstorm solutions to work problems. Then I get out. I have towels I get from a special place in London, extra soaky. I have a system for drying myself in a quarter of the time.
What’s your secret to balancing it all? 
If I had to laser in on my most key pieces of advice, I would say surround yourself with good help, pick a good spouse (which is basically the same thing), offload everything that is not core, and don’t lose minutes. 
Shelly thinks of herself as a good and capable mother, but reading some of her parenting ideas will surely convince readers otherwise. 
Every day I feel such pride and purpose as I walk into Conch. If I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work, so it’s satisfying when my mind and surroundings sync.
Shelly’s Q score, which measures likability, tops out in the single digits. But she wonders why she is not more likable; she likes herself. “Still, a more likable CEO might help Conch at the margins, and I felt I had in me the potential, even obligation, to become an averagely likable person."

The reader discovers that Shelly was struck by lightning as a teenager, and while suffering through a long and painful recovery, she reckons that the strike made her into the successful overachiever she need to be to run a large corporation. 
I happen to love Mondays—they are my most productive day and my favorite (thank God it’s Monday, I always think when I wake up). It’s not that I dread the weekends per se; I love them differently, like a second child. On Saturday mornings, I feel, despite my efforts, a little down at the prospect of temporarily unplugging, and although I never really do, entirely, there’s something depressing about pinging out emails and knowing it could be an hour or more before anyone replies. The workweek at Conch is joy, so it’s a nice feeling to have as much of it as possible still to come. 
From reading the acknowledgement at the end of the book, it’s obvious Cohen has done her homework re women in high power positions and the toll it takes, and I have to admit once I realized that she is intentionally caricaturing life of a successful CEO, I found the humor of the book more compelling. Shelly says she prioritizes Conch and her children, and wonders if, perhaps, she should have prioritized her marriage more. But "How many things can be the priority? Really just one at a time". ‘Priority’ is not a word that can legitimately be pluralized. And Rafa understands, or I thought he did. He has his own work. Of all of them—Conch, Cullen, kids, Rafa—he needs me the least.

You will have to read the book to discover more about the glitch and about the juggling act of Shelly.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Chemistry by Weike Wang

The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says. That’s not how this works.

So begins the delightful and insightful little novel by Weike Wang entitled Chemistry. It is Wang’s debut novel about a young woman working on a PhD in chemistry. Her boyfriend roommate is also about to receive a PhD, and he proposes to her often, but is always put off until 'later'. Besides loving the whacky story of this couple’s courtship, I also relished the asides about academic writing, competition amongst grad students, and remarkable little facts about the universe we live in.

Wang got her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Harvard where she also earned a PhD in Public Health. Beyond that, she got an MFA from Boston university. She understands the politics of graduate education very well. Her narrator (whose name I don’t think the reader ever gets) is at a standstill in her life. Besides pressure from her boyfriend to marry him and then accompany him to a Midwestern university where he will teach, she is also under constant pressure from her Chinese parents to finish her PhD and begin her career. But while she has always been an excellent and diligent student, she seems unable to come up with a creative idea for her dissertation, and so is also under pressure from her Advisor. 

Despite all the pressure, or because of it, she seems unable to move forward on any of these issues. She remarks that she has read somewhere that “the average number of readers for a scientific paper is 0.6,” with the clear implication that it is really not worth the effort to produce such papers. 
What use is this work in the long run? I ask myself in the room when I am alone. The solvent room officially, but I have renamed it the Fortress of Solitude.
Unable to answer affirmatively to her boyfriend, but not wanting to leave the relationship, she makes up a list of pros and cons to help her to decide—the making of such lists a lifelong habit of hers.
The pros are extensive. 
Eric cooks dinner, Eric cooks great dinners. Eric hands me the toothbrush with toothpaste on it and sometimes even sticks in in my mouth. Eric takes out the trash, the recycling; waters all our plants because I can’t seem to remember that they’re living things.
Unlike the narrator, Eric sails through graduate school and is celebrated for his creative work. While she in a fit of frustration intentionally breaks a number of beakers in the lab, and stops attending class. 
It is common knowledge now that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them.
Afraid to accept the marriage proposal, and even more afraid to tell her parents that she is abandoning her doctoral studies, she takes on students, tutoring them in math and chemistry to eek out a living. The pressure from her parents is constant. She recalls how she was forbidden from attending social activities by her brilliant father. 
I once had a math teacher who made me play a game. The teacher is my father and the game involves a deck of cards….He sees no value in a school dance. 
The rule is I cannot go anywhere until I have beaten him, and he knows I can’t beat him.
While this is a sometimes uproariously funny book, there is a cutting edge of genuine sorrow and desperation that drives it. She sees her parent’s marriage as one of constant fighting, and she cannot let herself marry given what she sees. 
At some point my mother, probably to comfort me, tells me that there is no good marriage without constant fighting. Fighting is how a husband and wife talk.  
I pose a hypothetical to Eric. If I go with you, will you take the other question off the table? {i.e. the question of marriage.} 
Until when?

Until forever? 

He doesn’t think so.
All in all this is a funny and fine little novel, and the questions raised are more serious than I’ve made them appear. Also, the narrator is much more conflicted by and caring for her parents than I’ve made her appear. As she tries to find a way to reconcile both with her parents and Eric, she reminds herself:
In Chinese, there is another phrase about love. It is not used for passionate love, but the love between family members. In translation, it means I hurt for you.
And she reminds herself that she hurts for her parents and for her devoted boyfriend, so she loves them after all. This is a beautiful little book, and it can be read in a single sitting.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

Shobha Rao’s 2018 novel, Girls Burn Brighter is the story of two very poor Indian girls who become fast friends, and once they are separated, they spend much of the rest of their lives looking for one another. The two girls Poornima and Savitha, just a year or two apart in age. 
At fifteen Poornima came of marriageable age, and she stopped going to convent school. She began to sit at the spinning wheel, the charkha, in her free time to help the household…that she, a girl, could earn anything at all, lent her such a deep and abiding feeling of importance, --of worth—that she sat at the charkha every chance she got….Their hut had no electricity, so her spinning was a race against the sun.
At sixteen, Poornima’s mother dies, and she is promised in marriage to a farmer from another village. 
After a family death, it was inauspicious to have a celebration of any sort, let alone a wedding, for a full year. It had been two months since her mother’s death. In another ten—her father was saying—she would be married.
Savitha comes into Poonima’s life because her father takes her on as a helper now that there is one charkha in the house free for use. 
Savitha was quiet around Poornima at first. She was a year or two older, Poornima guessed, though neither knew their exact ages. Only the birthdates of the boys were recorded in the village. 
Poornima’s father tells a story about how, when she was a baby, she had wandered into the river, "within seconds she was up to her neck". Her mother panicked, and her father chased after her. 
When I got near the waterline though, he said, I stopped. I know I should’ve plucked her up and given her a slap, but I couldn’t. You see, he said, she looked like she was nothing. Just a piece of debris.  In that mist, in that gray, in that vast, slippery rush of water, she looked like nothing. Maybe the head of a fish tossed back in the water...I looked at her, he said, I looked and I looked, and I could hear her mother shouting, running toward me, but I couldn’t move. I was standing there, and I was thinking. I was thinking: She’s just a girl. Let her go. By then, her mother had come up from behind me, and she’d snatched her out. Poornima was crying, he said, her mother was crying, too. Maybe they both knew what I thought. Maybe it was written on my face…An  then her father had let out a little laugh.’ That’s the thing with girls isn’t it?’  he’s said. ‘Whenever they stand on the edge of something, you can’t help it, you can’t. You think, Push. That’s all it would take. Just one push.’
Before Poornima is shipped off to her new family, Savitha is raped by Poornima’s father, and since that means she is ruined in the village, there appears to be no future for her. The village men decide that justice requires Poornima’s father to marry Savitha. Before that marriage can take place, Savitha disappears from the village, and little attempt is made to find her. Poornima’s new husband disgusts her, and his family sees her as unworthy, eventually shipping her back to her village. Of course, the only thing Savitha has that she can sell to survive is her body, and she is soon in the hands of a brothel keeper named Guru. Turns out she has a skill for math, and eventually keeps the books for Guru. 

All of the rest of this beautifully written but heartbreaking novel is taken up with Poornima’s search for Savitha—a search that takes her to many places and eventually to Seattle. Both girls end up in brothels, getting by only through the use of their bodies. While Savitha’s skill with numbers increases her status with the brothel keeper, there is no way to freedom.
Savitha was seated in front of his desk, but she still slumped. She was tired, She was tired  of deals. Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body: first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for virginity and then for her bearing  (counting only the sons) and then for her widowing.
It is hard not to focus on the horrible details of these girls servitude, but there are also wonderful passages about the love between the two, and the hope that somehow, some way they can be reunited and free. 

Poornima is badly burned at one point, and her scars are yet another reason for people to shun her. As she discovers that a girl she is trying to help is afraid of the help because of Poormina’s scars:
She felt something rise inside her, something bitter, something angry, and she spit out, ‘You fool.’ She heard the girl back away from the door. ‘you fool,’’ she cried again, and heard the girl whimper. What a fool you are, she thought, fuming. What fools we all are. We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind,. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.
Finally, hot on Savitha’ trail in Seattle, they  are so close to finding each other again, but will they? You will have to find out for yourselves by reading this wonderful debut novel.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

Of the children she had found, the ones who did best over the long term were the ones who found a way to play. They created fantasy  worlds in which to hide. Some even talked their captors into giving them toys. Escaping into another world was a way for them to disassociate safely, without losing touch with reality—unlike someone like Naomi, who had blanked it all out. Yes, the ones who did the best in the long run made a safe place inside their very own minds. 
Sometimes they even pretended to be someone else.  
Naomi didn’t believe in resilience. She believed in imagination.
So says the lead character and investigator/ child-finder in Rene Denfeld’s superb novel, The Child Finder. Denfeld is a licensed investigator who specializes in death penalty work. Many of you readers will already know of her through her non-fiction writing or her excellent debut novel, The Enchanted, which I reviewed in 2014.

Naomi (the child finder) has, herself, lived under captive conditions, and we readers are introduced to her as she looks for a girl, Madison, a girl who disappeared three years before when she was five years old. I have no intention of laying out much of the story here, since it is a finely woven mystery, and giving away much at all of the plot would be a sure spoiler.

I will tell you that one of Madison’s favorite folk tales is a Russian one of a snow child. Indeed, I just came across the folk tale this year in reading and reviewing Eowyn Ivey’s lovely novel The Snow Child. Madison decides that she, too, was rolled from the snow by her captor.

In this time of great awakening, the snow girl learned much about herself and the world. She learned the world was a lonely place, because when she cried no one came. She learned the world was an uncertain place, because one moment you were one person and the next you landed on your head all goofy and woke up in a dream. She learned the world was a wild place, full of imagination, because that was the only possible explanation for what had happened.

Ms. Denfeld skillfully takes us from the point of view of Naomi and her work to Madison’s, and she is so deft in her weaving together of the two tales that the reader is kept on edge but occasionally hopeful. Hopeful that Naomi will uncover more of her own blocked past via her search, and also that somehow, miraculously, Madison may be found.

Besides great descriptions of the Pacific Northwest and the icy Cascades, Denfeld also shows her tremendous compassion for children and through telling this tale makes evident her own great imagination.

I found this book totally enchanting, and actually read it in a long, single sitting, not something I do very often. It is very difficult to put down.  On the jacket cover for the book, one commentator says, “Rene Denfeld has a gift for shining bright light in dark places.”  Indeed she does, and rather than risking being a spoiler, I’m going to stop now and urge you pick up the book for yourself. It deserves all the praise it has gotten and more.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Women’s Fiction

With women’s Day just behind us, I am focusing my reading this month on women authors. I notice more and more when I peruse big distributors like Amazon that there is now a genre called “Women’s Fiction.” Not so long ago, this same genre might have been called romance novels, and I take both designations as at least faintly negative, alerting readers that this is light fiction, all about squishy love and relationships, unlike the more muscled serious literature produced by men. In fact, if a reader really wants to read about relationships, between men and women, women and women, parents and children, and even our relationships with other animals, I think the category to look to is women’s fiction.

Indeed, when I look back over women authors of the last century or more, I think most could be put in this category. Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing, and even Nadine Gordimer write primarily about family and relationships. Yes, Murdoch’s novels are deeply philosophical, and Gordimer’s deeply political, but the stories told are about relationships. Take for example one of Gordimer’s later novels, A Sport of Nature, Lively’s The Photograph, Lesssing’s The Golden Notebook, de Beauvoirs’ The Mandarins; all of these novels are about relationships, and all (as I read them) feminist novels. 

But I want to put in a word or two today for even more popular so-called romance writers like Jojo Moyes, Joan Silber, and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Recently, after finally finishing an agonizingly long and gruesome psychological thriller, a reader friend loaned me a stack of library books when I told her I needed to read something more hopeful and optimistic. The stack included Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter From Your Lover, and The Horse Dancer both of which were deeply perceptive about how relationships go wrong, and how they can sometimes be righted, perhaps with just a few moments of real honesty or a real attempt to un-self, in Murdoch’s words, to really attend to the other. The Horse Dancer not only reveals much about how secrets and  hiding of insecurities prevents real understanding between lovers, and between children and parents, it also describes a beautiful relationship between a girl and her horse, and much advice about how we ought to attend to and treat animals in our lives. 

Now I agree that romance novels often become formulaic, with too much talk of six-pack abdomens and hot, smoky sex. And, as in The Last Letter From Your Lover, too much jerking around of the readers, first giving one hope of a breakthrough, a reunion, a happy ending, and then ripping the carpet out from under those hopes, only to begin to build a new anticipation of resolution, a new thread of hope cut off again, and again. Still, the characters in the novels mentioned are believable and fully fleshed out, and the circumstances usually quite plausible. 

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s fine novel, Set Me Free not only describes human relationships well and perceptively, it also tells us a lot about racism and the broken promises Native Americans have continually faced. I’m sure some readers would want to insist that Set Me Free is much more than a romance or women’s fiction book, but my point is that many in this poorly defined genre are much more than romances.

I learned long ago that I loved what many critics deride as ‘chick flicks,’ for many of the same reasons I find so-called romance novels important and uplifting. When I look back and recall why I so loved Edith Wharton. Alice Munro, Willa Cather, I discover that it was their acute understanding of relationships that endeared them to me. Would Jane Austin and Emily Bronte (were they writing today) be labeled romance writers? Certainly, relationships between lovers were key part of their works. 

At various times in my reading life I have rejected whole genres of writing: science-fiction, mysteries, only to discover my reasons were superficial and largely unjustified. So-called romance novels are, I suppose, my latest treasure-trove of overlooked or too quickly rejected novels. Jojo Moyes has made me laugh out loud and cry as she describes the sad but often laughable antics of lovers.

I have not learned much from self-help books on how to make relationships work, or how and when to jettison ones that don’t, but novels (especially those by women) have shown me just how deceit tarnishes and/or destroys relationships, just how even moments of real honesty can restart a relationship in trouble. 

I am a reader who loves to read about families, and here, again, I think the place to go is often this slippery genre I’m trying to characterize.

Next week I will return to my usual habit of reviewing a single novel when I review Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, another novel primarily about relationships. But today, I am happy to be recommending to you women’s fiction, which is neither soft nor shallow.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Garth Stein begins his intriguing novel, A Sudden Light, with a quote from Anais Nin, “We do not see things the way  they are, we see them as we are”, and with this Kantian insight he begins to tell a long story that calls into question the reliability of memory, the responsibilities of wealth, and the destruction of the forests of this country by the lumber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Most of you readers will know Stein by his famous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and while that was a fine book, I think this one is better and more important. Trevor Holloway, who is fourteen years old, goes on a trip to Seattle with his father in order to discover about his past and about the vast estate once owned by his great, great grandfather Elijah Riddell. Trevor’s parents, Jones and Rachel, have recently separated after Jones’ business has collapsed and his mother has ‘escaped’ to England to be with her family. While he is not sure why his father has insisted that he accompany him on the trip, he is sure of what his personal mission is. 
… I understood two things:  first, somewhere along the way, my father had gone wrong and my mother stopped loving him; second, I could fix him. I could pull him together. And I believed that, by the end of the summer, if I did my job right, I could deliver my father to my mother as if he were a regular, loving person, like when she first met him…And then? Well, then it would be up to her to decide where her heart lay. A kid can only do so much.
During the course of his summer, he meets his 73 year old grandfather, Grandpa Samuel (who is said to be suffering from dementia), and his beautiful aunt, Serena, who feels that her brother Jones simply abandoned her when she was eleven, but has now come back to save her by getting their father to sell the huge old wooden mansion they still live in and the extensive grounds that are worth a fortune given the proximity to the city of Seattle. 

He also learns how Elijah was one of the major timber barons who, according to his dead son Ben, destroyed nature for profit. Ben is the conservationist son who bends all of his efforts to saving ‘The North Estate, and returning at least that small part of the forest back to nature.  

The story is a long and intricate one, and you will have to discover its many turns by reading the book yourself, but I can say you will be reminded of another forester Pinchot, and of the great conservationist John Muir. The book reminded me in a powerful way of my fascination with Muir in the 70s, and sent me back to some of his work. 

Trevor comes to know Ben through his dreams, and comes to believe that he is a somehow channeling Ben, and joining him in the struggle to preserve a bit of the land Ben’s father acquired. Trevor slowly explores many of the hidden rooms and chambers in the huge mansion and pieces together a story of the house’s past and of sins of his forefathers.

Grandpa Samuel provides the first clues about the past and the struggle he is having with his daughter, Serena, over selling the house and land. Serena has essentially surrendered her own life in the service of her aging father, and she wants finally to reap some benefit from the caretaking of the house and Samuel. We come to learn that her love for her brother, Jones, is not simply sisterly love, but has a romantic and carnal aspect as well. Indeed, her long-term plan is to get power of attorney so she and Jones can sell the land off (to be parceled into plots for McMansions), and then to tour the world with Jones as her brother/lover. Serena even tries to seduce young Trevor as an aid to completing her plans.

While the story totally caught my interest, I was even more interested in the history provided of the  rape of the land by the timber barons and the collusion between the timber men and mighty new railroads in exploiting the land for profit. While that history is certainly a sad and disturbing one, there is light in this story and some lovely excursions into nature mysticism as well. While some readers may be put off by the aura of magic in the novel, I read it more like a struggle between head and heart, between hard logic and a relationship with nature that transcends the need to codify and understand. Much like McEwan’s, Black Dogs, in which I believe McEwan presents his own struggles to rectify the division between rationality and spirit, I believe this is Stein’s attempt to take on this same struggle. There is in the incomprehensible complexity of the universe mystery that is not to be solved but simply to be embraced, and Stein does a fine job of standing before and embracing the mystery. 

I came away from the book feeling more optimistic about the world even in this dark and chaotic time. And I carried from it a quote from John Muir that has become a sort of mantra for me, “My peace I give unto you”. When you read the book, you will understand the importance of the mantra.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Power of One by Bryce Courteney

I want to talk to you today about a wonderful and inspiring book by Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One. I was moved by this book in a profound and lasting way. I am so thankful to my reader friends who continue to alert me to wonderful books that have somehow passed me by.

The book is set in South Africa, and its hero (or I should say one of its heroes) is a five year old boy who names himself Peekay. He is the youngest boy in a primarily Afrikaner boarding school, and he is persecuted and terrified by the Afrikaner/Boer students who call him a Rooinek (that is English), and hate him for it. His main persecutor is a big, older bully, Mevrou. “Ahead of me lay the dreaded Mevrou, the Judge and the jury, and the beginning of the power of one—how I learned that in each of us there burns a flame of independence that must never be allowed to go out. That as long as it exists within us we cannot be destroyed.”

The first fifty pages or so of this book were so sad, the bullying so oppressive, that I considered giving up on it, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Mevrou is a huge fan of Hitler, and he taunts Peekay constantly with the threat that when Hitler comes to South Africa, he will march all the Rooineks into the sea. Although incredibly precocious in some ways, Peekay is almost totally naïve in others. He has no map of the world in his mind, and is so naïve regarding the larger world that under the assault from Mevrou, he actually thinks that South Africa is on the side of the Germans in World War II. His only companion and defender in the early part of the book is a wise and gnarly old chicken, Grampa Chook, whom his nanny has helped him smuggle into the boarding school. Eventually, Mevrou and his gang of bullies declare both Peekay and Grampa Chook prisoners of war, and regularly haze them in horrible ways  behind the outhouses. 

Finally, Peekay gets some respite from Mevrou when a semester ends and he is sent to his grandfather in a small town. The grandfather, who had a small farm until a chicken disease wiped out all of his prize chickens, is one of the few bright lights in Peekay’s early life. On the train journey, Peekay runs into the first of a string of saviors, a railroad worker who cares for him on his long train trip and who insists that someday Peekay will be the welterweight champion of the world. 
I didn’t know then that what seemed like the end was only the beginning. All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives. Unbeknown to me, the tide had turned and I was being swept out to sea.
It is the railroad worker, Hoppie, himself a locally famous boxer, who teaches Peekay “First with the head and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start.” “He gave me a defense system, and with it he gave me hope.”

After meeting and being cared for by Hoppie, the next savoir for Peekay is a professor of music who has exiled himself to South Africa and spends most of his waking hours gathering succulents and cactus for his superb succulent garden. Doc (as Peekay comes to call him) contrives for Peekay to take piano lessons from him, in spite of the objections of Peekay’s born-again Christian mother, who is suspicious of all who do not share her born again faith. Doc is drawn to Peekay not so much because of his musical promise, but because he has such an inquisitive mind and is so eager to learn. 

In my 50 plus years of teaching, I came to believe strongly (as Doc does) that openness and curiosity are the most important aspects of a good learner and of brilliance. Doc takes Peekay into the hills every day to catalogue and gather specimens, and he teaches him to look carefully at everything and so see everything as interconnected. But while Doc has a wonderful and orderly mind, he also instills in Peekay a deep reverence for nature and for the mystery that lies therein.
The vines are people you encounter who are afraid of originality; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous…Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you will grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life.
Doc teaches him to really look, and to think clearly. But, he continues,
…in this world there are very few things made from logic alone. It is illogical for a man to be too logical. Some things we must just let stand. The mystery is more important than any possible explanation. The searcher after truth must search with humanity. Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life. When a truth is not so important, it is better left as a mystery.
When world War II expands to South Africa, Doc is arrested and imprisoned, essentially simply for being a German. Fortunately, the Commandant of the prison is a lover of music, and feels privileged to have Doc in his prison, even arranging for him to have his Steniway transported to the prison in exchange for a concert to impress his superiors and the townspeople. Peekay is allowed access to the prison on a daily basis and continues to learn from Doc. Also, despite his youth and his small size he is allowed into the boxing program at the prison where yet another of his heroes, a black man, Geel Piet, comes into play. Geel Piet teaches him how to box and how to use his feet to stay out of the way of the much bigger sluggers/fighters who can hit hard but can’t really box. “The boxer who takes chances gets hit and gets hurt. Box, never fight, fighting is for heavyweights and domkops.” Geel Piet and the way he is treated by Afrikaners also brings Peekay to understand that “racism is a primary force of evil designed to destroy good men.”

I think there will be some readers who will simply not be able to accept the precocity of this young boy, will not be able to achieve that suspension of disbelief that is required to lose oneself in a well told story. Courtenay, himself, seems to anticipate this when he has Peekay say, “You may ask how a six-year-old could think like this. I can only answer that one did.”