A Book for Our Bravest, Weirdest Selves

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell (University of Minnesota Press)

Eating Fire opens in 1992. The Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization is fighting for the right to march in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade; anti-gay violence is prevalent; the AIDS epidemic is underway; mainstream gay and lesbian activist groups are rejecting their fringes in an effort to present themselves as normal and “framing their campaign as a question of abstract equality and civil rights, and not about those creepy flesh-and-blood homos.”

The author, Kelly Cogswell has arrived in New York from Kentucky, having abandoned her Southern Baptist faith, ready to live a life full of art, words, and action. She is one of the founding members of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct-action group determined to keep the fringe at the heart of things, celebrating and empowering this part of the community, rather than sweeping it under a (very tasteful, I’m sure) rug.

Cogswell’s voice is sure, brimming with passion and intelligence. She drops readers into the middle of this historical moment, taking them on a wild and wide-ranging ride. She builds a home for herself in the Lesbian Avengers, whose organizing includes the principle that “Butch, femme and androgynous dykes, leather queers, drag kings and queens, transsexuals and trans-genders will not be thrown to the wolves so that straight-acting ‘gay people’ can beg for acceptance at our expense.”

One of the most valuable messages of Cogswell’s book is that direct action is an essential tool for political change: “Everybody should know how to use it. Especially dykes who rarely have lobbyists or representatives or cultural power…. Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society. We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world. In some ways, we were the last utopian group of the millennium, aiming not only for justice, but for pure freedom.” This mix of celebration, self-affirmation, wicked humor and outrage is all too rare in the U.S.’s current political discussions, and our current era is lessened by this fact.

Eating Fire captures the way that the internet transformed activism, allowing groups and individuals to produce low-cost, high-quality reporting, argument, and education. At one point in her book, Cogswell, whose lightening-quick mind has her offering claims and rebuttals one after another, gives the role of technology in the more recent “Arab Spring,” a nod, while reminding us that revolution requires much more than a strong on-line presence and regular tweets: “the triumph of nonviolent organizing [that was the Arab Spring] was getting called a revolution by the internet despite crowds in the street day after day, despite years of activism.”

Reading this book can remind us to be our own bravest, weirdest selves: “Visibility isn’t change itself, but a kind of wedge others can follow.” In a time when the politics of visibility seems much more about obstructionism than creativity, we need this book, this reminder of what we have done—not because we need to return to the past, but because of the necessity of working towards a transformative future.

Mighty Mill Girls

The Daring Ladies of Lowell: A Novel, Kate Alcott (Doubleday)

My love for historical fiction focused on the labor movement began with Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven. Since reading that novel (almost twenty-five years ago now!), my bookstore radar has led me to other novels treating similar themes. The newest such novel I’ve encountered is Kate Alcott’s The Daring Ladies of Lowell, and it’s a lovely addition to the genre.

You may or may not be familiar with the Lowell textile mills. As a quilter with a love of reproduction textiles (fabrics based on swatches from different historical periods), I know about the Lowell girls and the textiles they produced. Henry Cabot Lowell was a U.S. “entrepreneur” who visited British textile mills, memorized their layouts and the construction of their machinery, then returned to the U.S. with a head full of trade secrets and went into business for himself. The first U.S. textile mill was built in 1823 and more followed quickly, with most of them located alongside New England rivers that provided the power that ran machinery.

Early on, these Mills began hiring female employees. They became an important source of employment for young women who wanted to leave the demands of farm life and who dreamed of a more independence than had heretofore been possible. Still, the opportunities the mills provided came at a price—the labor was demanding, with thirteen-hour work days, dangerous equipment, and pay that was half what the men working for the mills earned. Mill girls lived in dormitories and had their behavior closely monitored by employers who worried about the public reputations of “their” girls. Any perceived “loose” behavior was grounds for immediate firing.

The Daring Ladies of Lowell is set in such a mill and one of its main plot lines focuses on the murder of a mill girl that’s based on incompletely documented press reports from the time. Alcott has used the historical information available, filling out the story with her own imagination. This is a work of fiction, but it reads true.

Two other key plot lines focus on the burgeoning labor movement and a problematic romance between a son of the mill owner and one of the mill girls. These different themes are interwoven effectively. Much to my relief, this novel never degenerated into romance, which I feared it might. Not that I have anything against romance—but I do object to the way it often operates in deus ex machina fashion to deliver individual women from the injustices of their time, while glossing over the lives of the many other women in similar straits, who don’t catch the eye of the wealthy landowner or the earl or the industrial baron or whomever.

This novel makes for engaging reading as we share the lives of these young women and watch their autonomy and courage increase as they’re granted the opportunity to be self-supporting. It’s worth reading both for historical context and narrative. It won’t teach you as much as a larger non-fiction work on the same topic and, despite the author’s best efforts, may minimize some of the challenges the mill girls faced, but it brings the era to life in a way that will move you to further reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

The 15th Century Detective

Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager

Eric Jager’s Blood Royal (in bookstores beginning tomorrow) offers a fascinating look at a key moment in French history and its aftermath: the 1407 murder of Louis of Orleans. If this tale were historical fiction, I might dismiss it as unbelievably convoluted, but this is non-fiction, drawing particularly on a lengthy (30 feet!) parchment roll documenting the work of Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris, in investigating this murder. Forget Eugene Francois Vidoq—Guillaume is the original French detective and rather a good one at that.

At the start of the 15th Century, France was unstable, to say the least. Partway through the Hundred Years’ War, the country was ruled by Charles VI, whose sobriquets included both “the beloved” and “the mad.” Prone to lapses in sanity that could last for a few weeks to more than a year, Charles apparently ruled well when he was able, but when he wasn’t his brother Louis of Orleans ruled in his stead. As one of a group of Valois brothers, cousins, and uncles who made up the nobility of France, Louis was a not-undeserving lightning rod for discontent among the masses and his fellow nobility.

Once Louis has been murdered, Guillaume has the unenviable task of finding those responsible. His methods included techniques we would find familiar: depositions, searches for physical evidence. They also included methods that are no longer in use: the chaining of streets and rivers to slow traffic, the locking of city gates, and (though he seems not to have resorted to this on the case of Louis’ murder) torture.

I don’t want to offer any spoilers here (though if you want them, you can easily consult the historical record). In its best moments, this book reads like an exquisitely crafted detective novel, with rich, precise prose and pacing that make it hard to stop reading. Near the end, the book becomes slightly less engaging as it moves from Guillaume’s story to a tale of in-fighting among French noble factions (all of whom were willing to make temporary alliance with the English enemy), with just a bit of Joan of Arc and her defense of the Dauphin thrown in. Without Guillaume’s character, who with his erudition and critical thinking seems to bridge the gap between his medieval era and the reader’s modern one, the book feels less solidly structured and loses its narrative momentum. But even in its weaker moments (and what’s weak here is stronger than the bulk of popular history on the market) the book remains compelling.

One of the delights of this book is that it depicts of ordinary lives along with those of the nobility that are usually better documented. Guillaume and his staff take depositions from a landlord, several barbers, a nursing mother, and other common citizens, leaving a record that is remarkable not only for its rarity, but for its detail.

This is a book that will appeal to a wide readership: fans of historical fiction, of history proper, and of mystery and detective novels. Rather than spreading the narrative too thin in melding these genres, Jager offers pleasures, and fascinating information, for everyone.

Nuclear Chorale

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit (Bloombury USA)

I expect that most reviews of Tarashea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos will begin as this one does, by noting that the entire work is written in the first person plural. The Wives of Los Alamos doesn’t contain a number of individual characters; instead, it is people by a single, plural “character,” a chorus singing in unison. This plural voice is the central fact of the novel, and it shapes the reader’s experience. Let me give you a quick sample from the opening:

We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked, What part of the Southwest?

Reading the first chapter, I found the “We” unsettling, not knowing of whom it was comprised.

Reading the second chapter, I found the “We” exhilarating, a stylistic device that felt almost musical in the way it simultaneously documented multiple experiences.

Further in, I found it alienating. While individual names were mentioned, the plural voice had no name besides “We,” so the central figures of the novel remained strangely disembodied. I could not, as I usually do, feel that I was getting to know them, building my own relationship with them.

And after a while, it became tedious: a clever idea that had been taken too far, an effect that wasn’t worth its cost in terms of plot and characterization. I felt I wasn’t reading a novel so much as a hugely overgrown, kudzu vine of a  prose-poem. I mourned the lack of an editor who put her foot down, who insisted on content as well as style.

But then the bomb is made. The bomb is made; it is dropped on Hiroshima; it is dropped on Nagasaki. Photos come back from the blast area: shadows where people were instantly incinerated, others of individuals dying quickly from radiation burns or more slowly from radiation poisoning. And at this moment, the “We” became absolutely essential.

The “We” became essential because the scale of the bomb was beyond individual experience, because it evoked a multitude of responses that could only be embodied in a plural voice. As a reader I needed that simultaneous chorus of shock and fear and self-justification and weariness and horror and, even, indifference. I became deeply grateful that this story hadn’t been trusted to the voice, the perspective of a single narrator.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a brilliant piece of work. Yes, the voice wearies after a while, but once it becomes essential it remains essential. I feel deeply grateful that Tarashea Nesbit understood that fact and let it shape her work and my experience as a reader.

A Novel of 14th Century Politics and Heresy

A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger (William Morrow)

I spotted A Burnable Book early on Goodreads and was absolutely itching to get a review copy. A story set in the 14th Century with a plot that features heretical literature and Geoffrey Chaucer—what reader in her right mind could resist that?

The publicity likens A Burnable Book to An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Name of the Rose. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly no insult to the latter two to put them in the company of the first. Like those books, A Burnable Book is a delightfully “chewy” read: generous in length and filled with period detail.

Bruce Holsinger is a scholar specializing in medieval literature, and I trust him to get the details right. He ends the book with a long letter to the reader discussing his research and sources. The transsexual (my label here, the term didn’t exist in her own time) prostitute is based on 14th Century legal records of an interrogation of just such an individual. And I expect that the novel’s Gropecunt Lane had its real-world counterpart, likely with the same, rather arresting name.

Driven by political manouvering, the novel follows multiple paths of betrayal, abuse of power—even attempted regicide—all of which seem to result from the burnable book of the title, a prophecy of the deaths of England’s first thirteen kings.

A Burnable Book is the sort of piece you want to pick up when you have plenty of time for reading and the mental energy to follow a complex plot with a large cast of characters. It needs to be read, if not in one sitting, then over the course of a few days. That’s partly so one can keep the many details fresh in one’s mind—but even more an acknowledgement of what a compelling reading it is. Regardless of what one’s intentions are, this is the sort of book that can’t be easily put down.

Water Magic

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (Scribner)

Turn of the 20th Century Coney Island. A young woman trained to impersonate a mermaid. A Jewish photographer, refugee from Ukrainian pograms, fleeing his own cultural heritage. A former mob boss turned horse-whisperer. A highly cultivated wolf-man, whose life has been transformed by Jane Eyre. A hermit with a pet wolf. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. A mysterious disappearance. What more do I have to tell you to get you to reach for this book?

Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is an extraordinary thing itself. Yes, it has all of the above elements, any one of which would make me pick it up in a bookstore and think about making a purchase. What it also has is a rich storyline, with engaging, complicated characters, and a trio of narrative voices that leave one hungry for more.

The first two characters I mentioned, the mermaid and the photographer, provide two of the narrative voices. The third is a traditional omniscient narrator. Each chapter opens in one of the two character voices, then transitions to the omniscient narrator. In odd-numbered chapters we get the mermaid. In even-numbered chapters we get the photographer. And each of the three voices sings, distinct and true, creating a story that lets us move in and out of the hearts of its characters, seeing events from multiple perspectives.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things balances dark and light. It’s full of menace, but never becomes hopeless. This is one of those novels that’s worth purchasing while it’s still only available in hardback.

Afghan Witness

The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing, ed. Adam Klein, (Dzanc Books)

The Gifts of the State was released in early December, but I just received my digital review copy a week ago. From the moment I began reading, I knew I’d been lucky enough to come upon a unique, engaging title that I was eager to share with others.

The editor, Adam Klein, ran English-language writing groups in Kabul for Afghans over a period of several years, and the short stories in this collection come out of that workshop. He undertook this project “to gather from a few aspiring writers the larger possibility for voices in a country too easily collectivized by frontline reports, historians who make Afghans seem like undefeatable warriors incapable of love, humor, heresy, let alone creating peaceful homes of democratic assembly.”

Most Afghans who speak English speak it as a third (or fourth or…) language, and Klein admits to spending a great deal of one-on-one time with the authors editing for grammar and wrestling with style. I was worried at first that this might affect the quality and variety of the finished pieces, but I was delighted to find that the voices varied significantly from one story to the next.

Given the recent history of Afghanistan, most of these stories have war as a background, but the number and complexities of these wars will be unfamiliar to many English-language readers: the revolution that ended the Afghan monarchy, the Soviet invasion, the battles between socialists and mujahadin, the triumph of the Taliban, and the more recent U.S. invasion. For the past half-century, Afghan life has demanded an ability to fit in among the current power group without developing a place in that group that would make death inevitable with the next change in political fortunes. We see many different characters negotiating this difficult “being, but not being”—and sometimes paying a high price when their efforts are unsuccessful. While all the pieces in this collection are fiction, they have the ring of painful truth.

Interestingly, many of the writers—both male and female—chose to write from the perspective of the other gender. From my outside perspective, I would have anticipated that this would appeal to women writers, but I lacked the imagination to see how important it might be to male writers to attempt to see the world through female experience.  This is only one of the many ways in which this collection both confirms and confounds expectations. American readers will find situations and characters that seem familiar, but even more that break open our assumptions about life in the region.

This book is available through bookstores in paperback. It’s also available in electronic format directly from the publisher (use the link above). You can read this collection in an evening, but the stories will stay with you for much longer.

Freedom Rider

I’ve just finished reading an electronic review copy of Carol Ruth Silver‘s Freedom Rider Diary. The freedom rides took place the summer after I was born (1961), so I obviously don’t remember them from that time, but they were present as “background knowledge” for me during my childhood. Because of my personal interests and teaching responsibilities, I’ve regularly come across freedom riders in my reading—but I’ve always assumed I more or less understood the freedom rider experience and have never looked for a detailed account specific to this part of our nation’s history. I am absolutely delighted that Carol Ruth Silver has made my knowledge a bit more specific and has changed my perception of the freedom rides from historical event to individuals’ experiences.

The introduction by historian Raymond Arsenault provides useful context for Silver’s account. He reminds us that

To understand the magnitude of [the Freedom Riders’] achievement, we need to recall what the south and the nation were like in 1961. Rampant racial inequality and overt systematic racial discrimination prevailed in virtually every aspect of American life, from employment, housing, and education to public accommodations, the legal justice system, and politics…. The Freedom Ride was designed to turn the Cold War to the Civil Rights Movement’s advantage, to convince the Kennedy administration and the American public that it was dangerous and counterproductive, and essentially immoral, for the United States to call for democracy and freedom abroad when that same democracy and freedom was denied to millions of black Americans at home.

Carol Ruth Silver’s diary reveals that her decision to become a Freedom Rider was a quick one (though she spent plenty of time mulling things over once she’d volunteered). She’d planned to take a bus during the second half of that summer to visit friends in Mexico City, and felt that it made sense to use her journey through the south to contribute to the greater good. Once she’d volunteered, she began asking questions of herself:

Will something like being sent to jail in Mississippi for flaunting segregation laws keep me from taking my bar exam [she was about to begin law school] three years hence? Or would the university of Chicago refuse me a scholarship or even kick me out of law school if it found out that I had a jail record? Would I be denied a security clearance?… What if the next time I need a security clearance the buraeucrat who is supposed to put on the final stamp is a Klansman from Jackson, Mississippi?

She ultimately answered those questions with one more question: “if I sacrifice my conscience to my career what have I left?”

That attitude is what I found most moving about Silver’s account. Having spent my childhood observing the social struggles of the 1960s from the sideline left me with nostalgia as a teenager for a time that had come just a bit too early for me to participate. As I attended college, I went through ebbs and flows of activism, advocating at different times for abortion rights, gay rights, women’s rights, a boycott of South Africa. Still, I always felt that there had been something purer, truer about the time I’d missed and those who had gone before me, and Silver’s book confirmed this feeling.

Silver wrestles sincerely with the process of non-violent civil disobedience; she expects herself to love those she’s protesting against. She believes deeply in the promises of the Constitution and expects our nation to live up to them. She doesn’t surrender to cynicism, doesn’t even seem to consider that an option.

As I said, while I more or less knew the Freedom Rider story, there were a great many details I didn’t know. I knew the riders spent time in prison. I didn’t know that during most of that time they were denied writing materials, mail, even mattresses. I knew the Freedom riders went to court. I didn’t know that each of them appeared in court three separate times—continually interrupting their lives to return to Mississippi and the legal battle they were fighting.

Silver’s observations are astute. For example, at her third hearing as a black potential juror is quickly removed by prosecution, but told by the judge to report for jury duty again the next day (when he would once again, no doubt, be removed), Sliver says she “noted angrily to myself, [that this process of being repeatedly called without being impaneled] is a form of intimidation to prevent Negroes registering to vote, if they must give up a day or days of work to show up for jury duty, only to be insulted by being excused for being Negro.”

Silver’s diary ends with a note that her conviction, and that of other Freedom Riders, was overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Thomas v. Mississippi ruling.

Silver’s diary is followed by additional materials: an excellent collection of photographs from the Freedom Rides; an afterword by Cherie A. Gaines; an account of the experiences of Claude Albert Liggins, another of the Freedom Riders; a broader autobiography of Silver herself; and a list of suggested readings.

I want to note that the author is the Carol Ruth Silver who was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when Dan White, a recently resigned Supervisor, shot and killed both Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly-gay supervisor, and Mayor George Moscone. These murders, the not-guilty-due-to-diminished-capacity verdict White received (remember the Twinkie defense?), and the riots that followed the verdict played themselves out over the years that I was coming out as a lesbian and emphasized for me the importance and the risks of being publicly visible. So, in a way I feel as if her diary has brought me full circle by a backwards movement through time.

This is a book worth buying, reading, and rereading. Different parts of it will speak to you at different times: the voice of Silver the young woman; the voice of Silver the experienced politician and activist; the historical background, the photos. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly in the future to see what else I can learn from it.

The Best Hard Read: Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen is going on my “essentials” shelf, my place of honor for books that merit regular rereading.

Prayers for the Stolen is a hard read, but an absolutely brilliant read. By hard, I don’t mean turgid prose or endless, unnecessary detail. It’s a hard read in that the lives of all the characters are unrelentingly hard, but the reader so quickly becomes attached to these characters that after the first few pages one is absolutely committed to the book.

Prayers for the Stolen is primarily set in a small hillside community in Guerero, not far from Acapulco, where “Everyone’s goal was to never come back.” This community is a shadow of its former self—now divided by the highway to Acapulco, it’s been fragmented; all the males have left for work in the U.S. and most have broken ties with the wives and children left behind; and the women who remain are at the mercy of the members of the drug cartels that flourish in the area. It’s the women in this book who are “the stolen,” kidnapped by cartel members either for personal use or to be sold for profit.

The central characters in this book are a quartet of teen-aged girls growing up under the strict eyes of their mothers who do all they can, first to pass their daughters off as sons, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make their daughters ugly in hopes that this will spare them from abduction: hair is cut short and badly, teeth are deliberately stained with magic marker. These four are Paula, a remarkable beauty; Estefani, whose mother is dying of AIDS; Maria, the illegitimate half-sister of the book’s narrator; and the narrator herself, Ladydi (as in England’s Lady Di).

Through Ladydi’s voice, Clement’s book walks a fine balance, presenting the difficulties of the characters’ day-to-day lives in a neutral tone that keeps the events described from becoming unbearable for the reader, but that at the same time adds to the misery depicted, since this tone makes it clear that the events being narrated are ordinary—not moments of unusual terror or suffering. This is the way life is on Ladydi’s hillside.

In this community, no one dares open herself too fully to others, not even to God. Ladydi’s mother warns her,

Don’t every pray for love and health…. Or money. If God hears what you really want, He will not give it to you. Guaranteed.

When my father left my mother said, Get down on your knees and pray for spoons.

This book doesn’t have a happy ending—except insofar as some of the characters remain alive at its close. Still, it’s oddly hopeful. Every day survived is a triumph of sorts, even if these triumphs remain uncelebrated and never lead to comfort or a change of circumstances.

A Murderous Romp in Victorian London

The Mangle Street Murders by M. R. C. Kasasian (Open Road Media)

I just received an electronic ARC of The Mangle Street Murders last week and the book was released on Tuesday, so I spent last night racing through it in hopes of posting a timely review. Lucky for me, there’s enough going on in this Holmes-ian tale to make a one-night reading enjoyable.

March Middleton is a recently orphaned young woman, plain of face and quick of mind who has arrived in London to live with a guardian who has appeared in her life rather abruptly. This guardian, Sidney Grice, is a bit like a non-comic, non-drinking W. C. Fields interpretation of Sherlock Holmes: misanthropic, self-righteous, mercenary, and absolutely brilliant. Of course, he does not approve of March’s proclivities for smoking and taking the occasional nip nor does he want her to join him in his work as a personal detective (that’s personal, not private, as he is frequently reminding others who are less precise than he). March, of course is determined to maintain her vices and to join in the detecting.

The book’s first half deals with Grice’s pursuit of a husband accused of his wife’s murder. The man is found guilty and executed, much to the horror of March who is certain he’s innocent. From that point, the plot grows more complicated as March battles with her guardian and worries about her role in this miscarriage of justice.

Kasasian crafts an ending of the satisfactory-unsatisfactory variety. The bad end badly, though not necessarily by legal means, and those defending the law show a willingness to abandon the pursuit of justice when doing so is convenient. In this sense, the book is both a period romp, but also a somewhat more serious piece. That seriousness is also apparent in both the author’s attention to the conditions of London’s poor and in March’s longing for a former fiancé who was a soldier and who—we gather, though we’re never told so specifically—died miserably in India, where March worked as an assistant to her father, a military surgeon.

The book also contains a lovely nod to Conan Doyle, which will be appreciated by fans of Holmes.

In all, this is a good start to what I anticipate will be a series. Grice’s unpleasant character grows wearisome, but a crack or two appear in his armor by the book’s close, and March’s determined independence throughout is a delight. Add this book to the pile of mysteries you save for rainy-day or summer-vacation reading—it will give you several hours’ pleasure.