February 13, 2014
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.
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February 10, 2014
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.
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February 06, 2014
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.
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February 06, 2014
Insanity, by Susan Vaught, (Bloomsbury)
“I wanted to like this book more than I did” is an overused opener for a book review, but…
I wanted to like this book more than I did.
The premise behind this book as described in its promo blurb could make for a great YA goth/thriller sort of read: “Never, Kentucky is not your average scenic small town. It is a crossways, a place where the dead and the living can find no peace. Not that Forest, an 18-year-old foster kid who works the graveyard shift at Lincoln Hospital, knew this when she applied for the job. Lincoln is a huge state mental institution, a good place for Forest to make some money to pay for college. But along with hundreds of very unstable patients, it also has underground tunnels, bell towers that ring unexpectedly, and a closet that holds more than just donated clothing….”
The opening chapter of the book is packed so densely with atmosphere—a stormy night, warnings about going out after dark, strange dogs—that, while it covers already much-trodden ground, it really grabs the reader. The first few chapters move at a pace that allows the reader to get to know Forest, to understand her dilemmas and admire her self-sufficiency. The problem is, this isn’t really a book about Forest: it’s a book about a whole crowd of characters, all potentially interesting, but none of them fleshed out very well. And, after the opening chapters, the pace picks up, turning the narrative into an episodic series of paranormal confrontations (in that sense, it would probably make a great big-budget movie).
After Forest helps two spirits to “cross over” peacefully, her narrative is dropped. We jump forward in time to deal with the lingering spirit of a serial killer, who was killed, but wasn’t, and who is threatening his own grandson. After that, we switch to the grandson’s girlfriend, whose father is a Madoc-killing holy roller with a witch for a wife. And so on. Forest does reappear, but by then she’s lost her depth. It’s as if the author listed every goth/horror element she could think of (though I give her credit for not including vampires) and then composed her book by jumping from one to the next, as if they were stepping stones.
Parts of this book held real promise. Forest becomes two-dimensional much too quickly, but she’s a genuinely interesting character. I’d be game to read another book featuring her, in hopes that it would develop her (and others’) character more fully. Lincoln Hospital is just creepy. I mean, creepy. For YA readers who enjoy the genre, this is exactly the sort of menacing place one wants to spend time. Lincoln has a life of its own—and a sort of edificiary (o.k., I made that word up) amorality that fascinates. But promising elements just don’t add up to a successful whole.
I received an early, electronic ARC of Insanity. It goes on sale in bookstores on February 18.
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February 04, 2014
The Secret of Raven Point, by Jennifer Vanderbes (Scribner)
The Secret of Raven Point is set in World War II. Its central character, Juliet, volunteers as a nurse at the Italian front after her beloved older brother goes missing in action there. Though the novel focuses on Juliet’s journey, we see other journeys as well. The journey of a broken soldier who may have known Juliet’s brother and who’s survived a suicide attempt only to be brought up on court martial. The journey of a military psychiatrist treating this soldier and fighting to keep some sense of hope and purpose in the midst of war. The journey of a military chaplain who must weigh the competing spiritual and physical needs of the soldiers he serves. The journeys of other soldiers living within and sometimes—but not not nearly often enough—surviving the war.
In the hands of a less effective writer, these different journeys might flatten out, be bulldozed into clichéd experiences of stereotypical individuals, but Vanderbes prevents that from happening. While not utterly brutal, her novel doesn’t pander by giving us unlikely happy endings. It doesn’t degenerate into a romance novel.
When you’re ready for compelling fiction that will make you both feel and think, pick up The Secret of Raven Point.
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January 30, 2014
The Dark Lady (Sherlock, Lupin, and Me #1) by Irene Adler (Capstone)
The Dark Lady, which the publisher describes as written for children ages 9-13, is based on a promising premise: Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler met as children and, along with a third friend, began their detecting careers early. The characters in this series—though this is the first volume, the publisher makes it clear that more titles will follow—are engaging, if still being developed. Irene is willful and clever, a strong female figure; Sherlock is diffident and also clever; and their friend Lupin is equally clever and a gifted acrobat.
What disappoints here is the plotting. The book begins well enough, but the young detectives do relatively little leg-work or solving—certainly not what one would expect from characters who will grow up to be the Great Detective, the only woman to ever best him, and, we are told, a future master criminal—gathering up a few clues with some minimal adventure. The denouement, however, comes when the young detectives confront their murder suspects, who quickly offer a detailed confession.
This dependence on a rushed, third-hand solution makes it seem as if the author tired of presenting clues one at a time and decided to dump a whole bushel basket of them into the children’s laps in the last twenty or so pages of the book. Yes, The Dark Lady is aimed at a young audience, but youth and careful plotting aren’t incompatible.
This isn’t to say that this series won’t develop into something worthwhile. It has plenty of potential—but the first book in the series leaves much of that potential unrealized.
The Dark Lady will be available in bookstores beginning February 1. I received an early, digital review copy from the publisher.
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January 28, 2014
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee (Random House)
If you’re looking for one of those wonderful “children’s” books that works for readers of all ages, you’ll most definitely want to read Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. A retelling of the Ice Queen story, this books grasps the reader (yes, even grown-up readers) from the start and only becomes more compelling as it progresses.
Ophelia’s father has been hired to curate an exhibition of swords at a museum in an unusual town where it is always winter. Ophelia’s mother has recently died. Her father is burying himself in work; her sister grows increasingly distant. So Ophelia sets off to explore the museum, finding the boy of the title, then joining his campaign to save the world from the Ice Queen’s domination.
Ophelia is a wonderful character. She’s committed to the scientific method, even as events around her become less and less rational. She’s vulnerable: frightened (with cause) frequently and asthmatic. Yet despite this vulnerability, she finds the courage to act bravely when necessary.
Read this book for your own pleasure and/or share it with a younger friend. Get to know Ophelia, join in her quest. You’ll probably wind up hoping, as I am, that this isn’t the last of her adventures.
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January 27, 2014
Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001, eds. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, (W.W. Norton)
On January 22, I received an electronic review copy of Poetry of Witness from W.W. Norton. Like all of the Norton anthologies this book is huge, so I haven’t begun to work my way completely through it, but I am already at a point where I feel that, even if I used every superlative in my writer’s armamentarium, I wouldn’t be doing this collection justice.
Poetry of Witness, which Forché also calls literature of that-which-happened, has a long history, though I find it less often than I’d like in English-language poetry, which seems more preoccupied with relating the complexity of individual emotion—whether joyful of mournful. Forché’s forward, “Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Lives,” attempts to forge a definition of poetry of witness that captures its meaning for author, reader, and society alike, concluding
In the poetry of witness, the poems make present to us the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. Language incises the page, wounding it with testimonial presence, and the reader is marked by encounter with that presence. Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.
Forché reminds us that this living archive is not just figurative, but literal: Anna Akhmatova burned many of her poems after friends had memorized them, keeping them present when their physical presence would have been a very real threat to her life.
Poetry of witness emerges from, not after, experience, since it testifies to experiences that cannot be left behind, cannot become after. Forché argues that the language of poetry of witness is a damaged—and therefore transformed—language. The body of thought, like the body itself can be broken, (partially) rebuilt, mended:
The witness who writes out of extremity writes his or her wound, as if such writing were making an incision. Consciousness itself is cut open. At the site of the wound, language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic. The form of this language bears the trance of extremity, and may be composed of fragments: questions, aphorisms, broken passages of lyric prose or poetry, quotations, dialogue, brief and lucid passages that may or may not resemble what previously had been written.
This volume, which is arranged chronologically, is a companion to Forché’s 1993 anthology, Against Forgetting (also published by Norton), which focuses on 20th Century poetry of witness. Poetry of Witness, with its broader focus, offers a powerful lineage of refusal, of questioning, on individuals destroyed upon the altars of states. These poems are part of the flow of literary witness across the last five hundred years of our history: long, damaged, glistening strands, like ropes, like rivers, like the twist of dna. By testifying to the worst in us, they preserve not only horror, but the hope of something better.
I don’t have now, and don’t know if I ever will have, words to capture the fierce, essential nature of this collection. I do know I will read and reread it—and, I hope, use it as a spur to thought, word, and action.
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January 23, 2014
Bird with the Heart of a Mountain, by Barbara Mariconda (Amazon Children’s Publishing)
Yes, I’m not the first to say it, but good children’s/young adult books are good books for anyone. Barbara Mariconda’s Bird with the Heart of a Mountain is an example of just such a book. Set in Spain during the civil war, the book is narrated by Drina, a young woman who is half Romany, half Spaniard. At the book’s start, she is living with her mother among a small Romany group, but that life is upended when her mother is raped by a Nationalist soldier.
That rape sets in motion a series of events that lead Drina to unexpected places and people—and on each step of that journey she wrestles with the question of her own identity. Lots of people, especially certain young men, are eager to tell her who she should be, but she has the sense to realize that the real question is who she is.
Drina longs to be a dancer—and it’s this desire, along with her own questions about her identity that drive the narrative. The passages about dance—flamenco—and music are beautifully written, cultural history lessons themselves, and the book deals with history in other ways as well.
I first wanted to read this book because I was curious how it would make use of its setting in the Spanish Civil War. The war is background here, but important background that shapes the temperaments of many of the people she meets. As a Romany, Drina is so marginalized that neither side represents her. Both Nationalists and Republicans are more than willing to attack and pillage Romany groups. While the narrative makes clear that the position of some characters is more “correct” than that of others, this story never descends into a simple good side/bad side binary. Like the war itself, people are complicated, mixes of good and bad, sometimes compassionate, sometimes blind to the lives of those around them.
This book is currently available from Amazon in hardcover and electronic versions. The electronic version sells for only $3.99, so it’s most definitely worth taking a chance on—whether you’re buying it for yourself or for a younger friend.
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January 21, 2014
I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the latest book in Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City series, and I am filled with a weepy-sweet nostalgia, glad to be spending time with old friends, but a bit wistful that they’re aging, just as I am.
I grew up in the SF Bay Area, so I’ve been reading Maupin’s books since they first appeared as serials in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was in high school then, part of a circle of friends that’s turned out to be nearly as eclectic as Maupin’s characters. Before Tales of the City was serialized, the only gay author I knew of was Tennessee Williams. I was devoted to him—but his plays and short stories were a mixed blessing, with the characters, especially the gay characters, inevitably coming to bad ends. Maupin showed me and my friends that the endings didn’t have to be bad. And he showed this to us day after day in the pages of the newspaper we all read eagerly each morning.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot of The Days of Anna Madrigal because I think all the Tales books are best read “virgin,” but I can say that much of this volume takes place at Burning Man, an interesting location in which to observe Michael, Mary Ann, Brian, Anna Madrigal and their extended families.
This series has gotten richer over time; the characters have deepened, as have their relationships with one another. If you’ve spent time with them before, you’ll be able to settle into their company in great comfort. If you’ve never “met” them, let me assure you, they’re well worth meeting. This book, like the others in the series has a fundamental gentleness at its core, a willingness to forgive and be forgiven, that is a real tonic. Things aren’t always neat or pretty, but the characters keep working to do right by each other and, mostly, they succeed.
Put on something cozy and flannel, pour a glass of wine or brew a cup of tea, prop some pillows behind your back, and enjoy.
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