Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American. What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism. Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks. Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race. And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans. Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America. And I think that is the point.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini *** (of 4)
A bottomless well of hopelessness, despair and background warfare in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of the 80s through the American invasion post 9/11. Seen through the eyes of two women who lose nearly everything they can imagine either blown to bits around them or whose common husband senselessly beats them. And yet. Hosseini’s crystaline writing and, in my case, Atossi Leoni’s heart wrenching reading simultaneously suffocated and repelled me. I wanted to stop the pain, but could not turn away; instead I lay awake for nights praying for salvation for Leilo and Miryam, two women who endured. December 2007
The Help by Kathryn Stockett **** (of 4)
The characters in this book – racist, southern white women in the early sixties and the black maids that work for them – are so believable, I rooted for my favorites, hissed beneath my breath at villains, celebrated triumphs, and felt gloomy for days when things went awry. Stockett captures personalities and gives each person a voice so full of accent and southern charm that the entrapment of race relations in Mississippi at the very dawn of civil rights is played out in the language itself. If you have any chance at all of listening to the Audio book, do so. It won the 2009 award for best audio book and with good reason. The actors will put you in a theater.
Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth W. Farnea ** (of 4)
In the late 1950’s Elizabeth Farnea’s new husband traveled to a small rural village in southern Iraq to do graduate research on an irrigation project. Farnea was relegated to life with the women and thankfully recorded her observations of how women completely veiled by clothing, secluded behind walls, and hidden inside houses lived with one another and their multitude of children. It must be one of the first books to think women’s stories are worth telling. Moreover, I suspect that for many rural, Muslim women life has not changed dramatically in the intervening fifty years. The strength of the book lies in its cracking open the stereotypes and Farnea’s revelations of the individual personalities behind those veils. The fact the book has been reprinted and is still available is testament to its insight. March 2006.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Aza Nafisi *** (of 4)
Nafiisi believes democracy can only succeed in conjunction with a fundamental human right to imagination. She demonstrates its value by documenting the deteriorating lives of eight young women she discusses fiction with under the tyrannical regime of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran. Western classics are banned and so is the option for young women to imagine a life of joy. “Fiction,” Nafisi says, “is not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world — not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.” Like the novels Nafisi uses to develop her memoir, this book grows in power and was worth sticking to. It is the most nuanced and complex view of women under fundamentalist Shia rule of the three that I’ve read. See also Persepolis 1, Persepolis 2, and Guests of the Sheik. May 2006.
Taking on the Trust by Steven Weinberg *** (of 4)
This is the story of how Ida Tarbell, one of the first women to attend Allegheny College, probably the first woman to be a paid staff writer for a magazine, and surely the first investigative journalist in the world took on John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil of Ohio and the richest man of his time. The history is compelling, but Weinberg in his efforts to emulate Tarbell’s impartiality delivers a lot more facts than drama. The conflict between the two, and the story of how a woman from a small town in northwestern PA could bring so low one of the world’s most powerful men passes without much tension. June 2009.
Devil’s Corner by Lisa Scottoline *** (of 4)
I once read that we read mysteries to learn about another place or time or culture as much as for the mystery itself. Devil’s Corner is vintage Scottolini: a young, Italian, feisty, female investigator goes after bad guys, this time in the crack cocaine trade. That’s what I learned about — the economic structuring of street trafficking. There’s also something fascinating about women writer’s of the murder mystery trade. The investigator’s in Scottolini’s books worry about their hair and whether their purses match their shoes and how many calories are in dessert rather than the male writer’s cop who worries about booze and babes. So I learned about women, too. This book is similar to her others. It clips along, there’s danger and real humor, it snows in Philadelphia where the plots always occur, and everyone important is Italian. Barbara Rosenblatt read the audio book I listened to and she’s the very best. September 2007.
Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee
About Brahmin Indian women recommended by LEP.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston **** (of 4)
Written in 1937, Hurston captures the lives of post-slavery, southern African Americans battling to overcome poverty and profound segregation. Janie, the story’s protagonist, is married three times by forty. The first two to black men insistent on domination. Janie is an article of clothing meant to be silent and shown off. Three times she runs off for a better man. The last, Tea Cake, is as poor as the Florida muck he occasionally works picking beans. But Tea Cake is a force of nature who insists that Janey also open herself to the elements of south Florida. Forsaking class and respect, she becomes a human being. The vernacular and characters Hurston chooses are so rich, complex, and authentic the story is still compelling literature seventy years later.
Hard to believe this sold as many copies as it did. The veil over this novel, that belongs on the mass market Romance shelf with other books sporting steamy cover art of bursting bodices and swarthy heartthrobs, is as thin as a transparent silk scarf. Set in Ming dynasty China a young female courtesan arranged to be married falls in love with the poetry-spouting, artistic, dark, brooding, hunk of a guy from a neighboring estate. Did I mention his hot breath on her ear smells of Jasmine and rose petals? Wait for it. Lisa See isn’t going to let them touch just yet. The ancient Chinese veneer is just a tool to keep Little Peony locked away from men where she has nothing to sustain her but an evil mother, step mother, wicked witch, whatever, and her secret scrolls of loveplays. Blah, blah, blah.