Jan 042016

Margo-Jefferson-Negroland-Cover.w370.h555Margo 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.

Apr 142015

marycoinmedOn the surface this is a fictionalized account of two women who made one another famous during The Great Depression: Dorothea Lange, a government employed photographer, and Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of what may be the most famous photo of the era, Migrant Mother.  Using available historical information (I know because I checked), Marissa Coin, the author weaves together the lives of these two women and brings to life the endurance of strong women getting by during extraordinary times.  Underlying the narrative is a discussion of the nature of history and photography.  History being a series of perhaps unreliable and haphazardly preserved recollections interpreted by future observers and photographs turning out to be exactly the same.  Pictures are no more than the preservation of a second in time that might or might not reflect reality and whose interpretation relies as much on the viewer as it does the photographer or the subject.

Jan 092014

Feldman-UNORTHODOX-jacket2It’s hard being female in a Hasidic community.  It’s impossible to question authority in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, inside the dense community of Satmar Hasids.  If, however, you are like the author, Deborah Feldman, both female, and a rebel, then life can be stultifying.  Deborah’s father is a certifiable retard.  Her mother, married to her father by arrangement without ever having met him, leaves the community soon after Deborah’s birth and is shunned.  Deborah is raised by rebbe-fearing relatives and devout grandparents, psychologically burdened Holocaust survivors.  Deborah chafes beneath the straightjacket restrictions of orthodox life: no secular education, no reading in English, no speaking with the opposite sex, no post-high school education.  No thinking.  Only faith.  As we watch Deborah crumble under the weight of it all, and as her anger (and anxieties) increase, the rebel in me also raised some questions.  Without doubting Deborah’s personal misfortunes, I began to wonder what part of Hasidism is appealing.  To Deborah, the entire religious community is out to squash her like an ant crawling aimlessly on a Brooklyn sidewalk, but surely some men and women must find orthodoxy satisfying.  Why?  If Deborah wasn’t so equally close-minded as her adversaries, might there be a middle ground.  Apparently, her forthcoming book, Exodus, asks some of the same questions.

Feb 032013

This is the tale of a irrepressible friendship between two women doing very unusual jobs.  It is World War II and England is barely holding its own as the Germans begin bombing runs over Britain.  Maddie, one of the two women, is a mechanical wizard who earns herself a place in the skies as a highly skilled pilot.  Queenie, the other, is a spy.  Consider how many female spies and pilots you can picture from that era and you have the underpinnings for a lot of suspense with a new twist.  I can’t give away more of the plot without being a spoiler. Ignore the book’s cover and be aware the book is written for Young Adults, but enjoy it.

Apr 242012

An elegy for the Japanese women who arrived in California in the early part of the twentieth century as mail-order brides to join lonely Japanese laborers.  Agreeing to marry an unknown man in a far-off land can only be undertaken by women whose prospects at home must be even worse.  Otsuka chooses no individual character to follow, instead providing a wash of experiences as she tracks in single poetic lines the lives of all women subject to extraordinary dislocation.  At first, a bit dissatisfying to read, this spare account in the end encompasses the experience of everywoman with precision and compassion.

Jul 152011

If a book is this bad I ordinarily just leave it off my list, but this one deserves to be panned, partly because it received such a flourishing review in the New York Times.  Author, Jennifer Steil, gives up her day job as a NYC journalist to manage a newspaper in Sanaa, Yemen.  While few topics could be more timely than to learn about daily life in Yemen, Steil eschews the opportunity to let her staff of Yemeni reporters gather information for us, her American readers, that might otherwise be hidden from a western reporter.  Instead, in breathless, purple prose she focuses on herself and her blossoming affair with Britain’s (married) ambassador to Yemen.  She drinks, she parties, she works too hard, and she frets, but her writing does nothing to make me care about any of it.  Feh.

May 012011

Stacy Schiff doesn’t just bring the most powerful woman in history to life, she brings her readers on location.  We face every decision Cleopatra contends with in real time.  First we are given detailed context with respect to the economy, politics, both local and foreign, family issues, the weather, even it feels like, how everyone is feeling on a particular cloudy afternoon when something auspicious is about to occur.  Then we are given options, Cleopatra’s selection among those choices, and finally a full retrospective analysis for what might have been going through her mind as she calculated was on the minds of her friends and enemies.    Without being overtly feminist in her description, Schiff does an extraordinary job of overturning history’s assessment of the Queen.  No longer a whore and seductress, Schiff persuades us rather convincingly that Cleopatra is an exceptionally adept politician unsurpassed by virtually anyone of her period.  Yes, she sleeps with and has children by the two most powerful men of her era — Julius Caeser and Marc Antony — but her success is not so much sexual as political.  The tragedy, Schiff argues, is that Cleopatra is judged by standards reserved to oppress women, rather than the more objective measures used to evaluate male political leaders. Schiff can really write, too.  This is much more than a history text; it redirects the way history has been used for 2,000 years.

Dec 252010

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.

Oct 312010

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.