Book Reviews Summer 2021

Body Language, by Marylee MacDonald

Body Language is an exceptional collection of short stories. Each story, I thought, was better than the one before. Then the next one was better. I wanted to know more about each of the characters, that is, to read full-length novels built around them. They are filled with uncertainty, relief, hope, and people taking risks. In one story, the risk is in re-engaging after a separation. In another, Sister Salina stands out as a complex character because of her hidden life. I connected with the feeling of not fitting in and being disapproved of for a behavior you cannot explain but others are quick to define in a negative way. The ironic but loving tone of the narrative works. The story of two children, adopted years apart, in the same family, shows the real-world impacts of isolation and the need for connection. Pursuing human contact hit a nerve in this time of a pandemic. Body Language lives up to its name in this powerful and poignant book by a master of the short story.

Reluctantly Dead, by Glenn Parkhurst, is an enjoyable book that mixes humor with horror to make it a romp through a serious subject. What happens when we die? What about those who’ve said they had a near-death experience?

Phillip, the main character, describes the experience of his hovering above his body while dying. Then, he is curious as he watches himself on the “largest I-Max ever, my own personal one.” He finds himself in a fog, and slowly light comes. His journey begins: he is drawn toward the light, feeling an urge to move toward it “like a sneeze lying in wait, it was irresistible.”

Phillip moves along the path toward the light above the horizon. Looking back, he sees a black tunnel that hides everything behind it. From time to time “black lightning” strikes a victim, taking them into the tunnel of despair, and sending Phillip into a deep state of depression. As Phillip treks through one version of heaven after another, each one reflecting human’s earthly desires for stability or for pleasure, he maintains a healthy skepticism. “They’d left out a few things, such as joy, peace, and love.” He admits he is not leaving much behind in his life, he had little ambition since a childhood bully made him retreat and play it safe, so he has no real attachments. His observations bring out the contrast between what his life could have been and what it was. Along the way, he meets Nathan, a boy of about twelve, who needs his help. In a series of adventures, they come to form a strong bond. Phillip’s personal growth creates the foundation for the final decision in his journey.

Reluctantly Dead has a memorable cast of characters and its ethical mind-play, as well as the word-pictures of temptation, anger, fear, depression, and steadfastness, bravery, empathy, and love, make this an interesting read.

The Little Dog in Big Plague, by C. C. Alma

How can we have humor in the midst of the COVID pandemic? C. C. Alma finds a way. The story is told through a dog’s eyes, giving it a perspective that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of human beings. The Little Dog is an orphan, and he goes about choosing a new family. In the empty landscape as people succumb to the invisible disease, his sense of smell tells him who is sick and who is well. This book is done with sensitivity and the humor makes it a top-notch read.

Tales from The Garden, by Sally Cronin

A wonder-filled garden is the setting for a series of adventures by a cast of fairies, dwarves, swans, geese, a one-eyed pig, and stone lions who come to life at night. “Eagles, rabbits and monkeys have found their way here over hundreds of years as well as animals who have sought sanctuary within its surrounding hedges.” Each of these, including a fawn, appear to be garden ornaments. But the hidden life is revealed in this book. They all have stories. The stone eagles “were made by a slave of the Roman merchant who built his villa on this mountain.” Waves of human history passed over, and for a time, no one lived there, but then the sound of “modern machinery woke us from our sleep.” One of those seeking refuge is a young boy. He is helped by the guardians of the garden. The stories of the humans are interwoven with those of the fairies and loyal family dogs. This is an imaginative and inspiring book by a gifted storyteller.

Two Books about Native Americans

Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.

The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.

Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?

To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.

Memoirs 2020

These are the memoirs I read this year and recommend for the beauty of their writing, their timeliness or their timelessness, and overall quality.

Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee

A well-known classic, and justifiably so, this first book by the famed British author, is a paradise of words. The vivid, sometimes surreal scenes of a child growing up in a rural area, touched along its sides by war, in a poor family with an eccentric mother and absent father, follow one after another. Rosie appears only momentarily, not a major character, just a turning point. The writing style is closer to Lewis Carroll than Hemingway, but this book shows why we need both. The nuances of childhood, the emotional shocks and revelations, and widening of the perspective from the self to others, are flawlessly communicated by this intricate torrent of words. The author went on to write other books , but Cider With Rosie remains his best-known work.

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

This book speaks to my heart. I experienced the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s in my midtown NYC community, seeing it take children from neighbors’ families, and parents too, and friends who had given into despair due to AIDS. We are just beginning to understand what happened, analyze, and tell this story, these stories. That black communities were hardest hit is undeniable. In this beautifully written book, Ward tells us the personal cost as she brings us the story of the small town Louisiana communities of DeLisle and Pass Christian in more recent times. Young black men are dying of drug overdoses, suicide or violence one after another. She asks herself why. What is happening to her friends and former schoolmates, people the same age as she is? The towns are poor, people are leaving, jobs scarce and often away on oil rigs or in other towns and cities, and they have been hard hit by hurricanes. The young black men struggle with identity and poverty. Their lives, they are made to feel and believe, are worth nothing. In telling their stories, Ward’s rage and heartbreak fill the pages. A must read for our times.

Journeys Without A Map, by Marion Molteno

This daring book reveals why Marion Molteno is as successful as she is in her endeavors. She overcomes a natural modesty and treks out into the world carrying her hope in a kit bag. I recommend reading her excellent books Uncertain Light and If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, before this memoir. In Journeys, she describes visiting places and people to prepare for writing her books, and what she does to promote them after they are published. Many of these promotional efforts are humorous, though also productive.

She analyzes the motivations for her writing specific books, choosing characters, what she was trying to communicate, how effective it was, and the information that comes from feedback.

Molteno is a master of tone. She neither over or under-describes, while managing to keep resonances all about her words and entire passages. The reader’s imagination fills the rest of the space. Hopefully, she will continue to produce thoughtful, thought-provoking books.

Twigs In My Hair, by Cynthia Reyes

This is the third in a series, beginning with A Good Home and An Honest House. In this small volume, Cynthia Reyes wades into the thicket of memory to expose the hardy growth hidden in a fast-paced life. A life halted by a serious car accident, bringing years of debilitating pain and the psychological effects of trauma. Besides the loss of her career, she found she could not do many ordinary things. Gardening and entertaining her family and friends were no longer possible. Home and garden, important threads in her life, were gone. And she was used to being active.

“By my early thirties, I was that rare thing in network television: a young, Black, immigrant woman who was also an executive producer and rising star.”

Years of success led to starting a consultant company with her husband. They bought a new home, an old farmhouse with garden areas, which she looked forward to rejuvenating. Then, the accident, and everything changed.  

“If gardening helped keep me sane, it stands to reason that not being able to garden helped drive me crazy.”

As she struggles with her disabilities, her kindness of spirit comes through. Empathetic and perceptive, she finds other ways to make connections and be useful. One of them is writing. She tells stories of people who shared her love of gardens and from whom she learned life lessons. From these lessons, she learned “a slow wisdom.” I recommend reading the first two books before this one. However, it stands on its own as well. Read my full review on Amazon.

My Favorite Short Story Collections 2020

I don’t usually read short story collections but this year, especially after the Stay-At-Home orders in my state, I found the short story form fit into the patchwork of my days. Here are two I enjoyed.

Black Crow Speaks, The Short Stories of Frederick Anderson

The best of these stories, in which a black crow literally speaks, are filled with humorous insights on the human condition amid an ever-increasing debris field. Dark humor abounds, as in “Some Reading for the Departure Lounge,” where an erstwhile pilot holds a conversation with an air traffic controller; the ending can be guessed but is still a surprise.

Some stories poke fun at or explore morbid events, with goblins, killers, and phantom trains. Others like “Brighton Rock” tell the sad but truthful experience of young love, first love. In “The Making,” hope and hopelessness mix as a people near extinction and all depends on one Last Experiment.

One of my favorites is “The Small Town Trocadero,” less a story than a reflection, filled with nostalgia for a time that is past and gone, which suits the time we’re living through. Beautifully written in declarative sentences it evokes the universal experience of being young and spending time with friends.

The stories always return to the black crow, who never disappoints.

The Night Bus, Mick Canning

Several of these long short stories are of travelling through unfamiliar territory, where earth and its elements shift in form, not sure what the landmarks and other signs mean, even when taking them as guidance. There are holy places, shamans, sacrifice, doors in the desert to step through, and a dance with Krishna.

The story I liked most was “The Photograph,” set in India in the style of memoir; the poem at the end of the book, “The Night Bus,” continues the trip through India.

“The Betrayal” begins with a night bus ride to a border town in the mountains. Past and present interweave in a narrative of escape from an oppressive society, at a cost that ultimately comes due. Years later, he questions the actions he had taken, the panic he felt, and the decision he made. I was confused by the confusion of identities in this one, which detracts from its impact. However, the sense of place and displacement, of refugees fleeing and those left behind, is palpable.

Overall, this collection gives the reader the feeling of “being there” in far-flung places. At the end, a series of poems talk of the old ways and the modern world, leaving today behind as we heed the call of adventure. He recognizes that “we are walking in the footsteps of giants.” Canning is “The Collector” of images and memories, because as he writes, “the world is full of wonders, all waiting for wanderers.”

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.

Summer Reads

Here are a few books I’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

A Good Home, A Memoir, by Cynthia Reyes

A Good Home

Cynthia Reyes’ journey from a pink bungalow in Jamaica to a Victorian Farmhouse in Toronto is captivating. Each home is the center of a vibrant and interesting life, inhabited by family and friends, and in one case, a female mentor. She shows us how a home is not just a place to live, but a place we fill with our spirit, and where our spirit can renew itself, grow and thrive. I’d like to know more and look forward to reading her sequel, An Honest House.

Somewhere More Simple, by Marion Molteno

Somewhere More Simple

This story of life on the small islands cast into the sea off the coast of Britain is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. The descriptions of the islands are precise, poetic, and will make you will feel as if you’re living there. Some passages reminded me of D. H. Lawrence, others of Virginia Woolf, but the narrative is modern, attuned to environment and relationships. A great read.

The Very Worst Riding School in the World, by Lucinda Clarke

The Very Worst Riding School in the World

This is a very good opening to the longer story which is available upon subscribing to Lucinda Clarke’s monthly newsletter. Her understated British sense of humor is perfect for the challenges of living and operating a “riding school” in Africa. The story itself is both funny and sad at times, but her love of Africa’s people and land, and of course, the individual horses, shines through. This little book is a gift to its readers.

 

Uncertain Light: Book Review

Uncertain Light by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

I was drawn in slowly, sometimes considering not going on, but beyond the valley mists and the world’s tallest mountains, lurks a promise. That kept me reading, and I’m glad I made the journey. This is an amazing look at people whose work we hear of, and yet do not know, at places remote and veiled in violence, where refugees gather and ancient towns bury their treasures.

One of the great treasures, discovered only after trust is achieved, is the work of a local poet, imprisoned, disappeared, his poems suppressed by one government after another. But he is not forgotten, his poems have been disseminated throughout the region, in various translations. The skill needed to translate them into English creates a new and surprising network of local and foreign people. 

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action.

In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. These are no hive-mind of like-minded people. Instead, each person has a distinct history, and carries an aloneness which is palpably felt in every moment. Even as they search for connections, each one keeps to her or his solitary walks. This yearning and this isolation accompany those who work in unsettled areas, who move through uncertain light.

Molteno’s experience with Save The Children comes through with portraits of the trauma children live through in turbulent times: their loss of family members, shelter, food, and education. “‘Them’ and ‘Us’ wasn’t primarily about cultural difference, the unbridgeable divide of life-chances was between the children of whatever race or religion who went to school like hers … and those for whom school was an unreachable dream…who sold things at roadsides, who carried heavy loads…”

In Hasilgah (the place of achievement which was originally named Be-hasil-gah, a place where nothing can be achieved), a town near the border of Tajikistan, a small group of people, many women, and the men who relate to them as equals, keep family and community together in adverse times. They protect not only children – future creativity, but also the creativity of the past. “Each step … forward will also be a reaffirmation of what mattered in the past.” Life is both history, social and personal, and future, challenging and beckoning, but the struggle for healing and wholeness always takes place in the present.

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

Happiness: A Review

Happiness

In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.

The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.

Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.  

The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma. 

The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.

My Top Five Book Picks for 2018

These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013

Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006

McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.

Loving Day

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015

A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018

Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality.