Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How about some book reviews?

There was a lot of reading this summer.  Given the dominance of gender politics in the last election, it's not surprising that is the theme in a lot of current literature.  So in these reviews I will make the last the first.

Last night I finished When She Woke by Hilary Jordan. 
Hilary Jordan knows a thing or two about the meanness of the human spirit as expressed in bigotry and hatred of "the other". But she also knows how to write a character with indomitable spirit. She's done it twice now: first with Mudbound and now with When She Woke. Though the settings and story lines are very different, these  themes are shared by the two books.

As the book opens, Hannah Payne awakes to find herself in a Chrome ward in Texas, where she will be in solitary confinement and video monitored 24-7 for 30 days. She has been given a virus that turns her red which is part of the punishment for having had an abortion, a result of an affair with her married pastor (is this story sounding familiar?).

This is a futuristic society where Los Angeles has been reduced to rubble by a terrorist act. Roe v. Wade has been overturned after "the scourge", a virulent STD which left many sterile, threatened the population and babies and the ability to reproduce became highly valued. A cure for "the scourge" has been found. Sadly in this society, there seems to be no cure for fulminating, fundamentalist christian bigotry that has become rampant and insinuated itself into government and public policy.

Prisons have been deteriorating, and the public policy solution to incarceration is to use viruses to tint convicts various colors that align with their crime. There are yellows, blues, greens, and red is for those found to be guilty of murder. And in this futuristic society, everyone can be tracked by the government at all times.

Jordan has done more than a passing nod to The Scarlet Letter in this book. The main characters have the same initials: Hannah Payne: Hester Prynne. The adulterous minister Aidan Dale: Arthur Dimmsdale. While in a "christian" group home for "rehab", Hannah names her aborted child Pearl, the same name as Hester Prynne's love child.

Upon her release from the Chrome Ward, the story becomes action packed and Hannah learns the perils of living as a marked woman in a hateful society. There is suspense, action, hatred, and love. Hannah is a strong character and her strength draws her to those who can help her.

The book is well written and the story line is compelling. In addition to The Scarlet Letter, I would also compare it to Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.

Another story with the theme of gender politics is The Birth House by Ami McKay.   I admit to having a soft spot for Canadian writers.
The narrator of this story is Dora Rare, the only female child born into the Rare family in five generations. She is born in the middle of six boys. The setting for the novel is Scott's Bay, Nova Scotia at the beginning of WWI.

Her father, uncles, and brothers are shipwrights in an era where wooden schooners are fast being replaced by modern steel shipbuilding. Farming is also a mainstay of life in this hardscrabble country. Dora is not a beauty. But she loves to read, a practice that her father discourages in the belief that reading will make her unfit for marriage. As the eligible male population is bled off to the war in Europe, Dora's mother engineers an apprenticeship to the local Acadian eccentric and midwife, Miss Marie Babineau.

Through this vehicle of midwifery, various aspects of women's issues and control over their bodies are explored. Ancient Miss Babineau teaches 17 year old Dora the use of herbs and lore to help women with infertility, pregnancy, labor and birth, unwanted pregnancies, and even sexual satisfaction. Dora quickly learns that suffering and loss are a part of living.

Meanwhile unscrupulous, ambitious Dr. Gilbert Thomas enters the community with his modern "scientific" approach to obstetrics. He has little respect or regard for women and their bodies beyond the money he can make from prepaid insurance plans for delivering their babies at a far away hospital, rather than in their homes which was the norm for the community. The transportation and expense were beyond what most families could afford, but the doctor appeals to the vanity of the husbands. In addition he sets out to disparage Miss Babineau and exploit Dora's youth.

At this point, a marriage of convenience is put forth for Dora that her parents make it impossible for her to refuse. The stipulation is that she must give up her practice of midwifery.

This story of women's issues unfolds against the backdrop of the war in Europe, the influenza epidemic of 1918, the introduction of allopathic medicine to rural Canada, the Halifax explosion, and the Great Molasses Flood of Boston in 1919.

The author does a great job of weaving the story together. I'm not sure that the "extras" of folkloric remedies and the recipe for groaing cake add much to the book, though.

And I'll wrap up the gender politics theme which combines human trafficking in All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones.
The author has taken on the topics of North Korea and human trafficking in one big gulp of a story. The story centers on two young women who are about to age out of a women's orphanage in North Korea.

Gi (Gyong-ho) was orphaned in a concentration camp after inadvertently revealing a trivial infraction by her family's care of "the Dear Leader's" portrait hanging in their home...it had dust on it. Her torture in the camp is graphically described and she survives only by withdrawing into a world of math and numbers, an area in which she is a savant.

Il-sun is the daughter of a deceased military officer. Her older brother died in a concentration camp because of his outspoken behavior. She became orphaned when her mother died in her early teens. Il-sun has dreams of marrying well and living happily ever after in so far as that is defined in North Korean terms.

Part 1 of the book details their lives in the orphanage and their work in a sewing factory. The deprivation, hunger, and meanness of spirit is brought home through the narrative and anecdotes. Gi is merely trying to survive and is looking forward to when she and Il-sun will leave the orphanage. Il-sun is acting more like an adolescent that a westerner might recognize. It is Il-sun's flirtations that move the story into the second part of the book.

Part 2 chronicles their transport across the DMZ between North and South Korea under the belief that the North Korean authorities are after them. Instead they, along with another young woman, Cho, are sold as sex slaves to a South Korean thug. Again the narrative brings home the effect of their isolated lives in the North. One anecdote described how startled the women were to see an overweight person and their first interaction with fast food. The rest of this section describes their captivity as sex slaves and the machinery of the porn empire their captor has built. Some of this is brutally described. With the help of another captive woman who is South Korean, they develop an escape plan with a tragic outcome that causes all four of them to be sold.

Part 3 of the book takes place in Seattle in a Korean mafia owned brothel. They are kept indoors and not allowed to wear shoes. They are "branded" with the gang's tattoos as is the madame and the shady doctor who comes to care for them. After more suffering, there is an upbeat ending to the book.

The story is compelling. The author's writing is adequate to the story. In journeying through the story, there are characters that are introduced then left behind. Some reviews fault the author for that, but I suspect that it brings home the nature of human trafficking....people (mostly women and children) disappear and are never heard from again. So we don't learn what happens to the mistress of the orphanage, or the woman who saved Gi from the concentration camp and other characters. Given the topics, it would have been artifice to have them all tied up neatly at the end of this story.

Okay.....something a little lighter in the form of a family saga:  The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver.  I've tried, and I really can't write a better review than what Ed Goldberg wrote here.  I loved this book.

These last two I listened to as audio books:
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer are a group of teens who meet at a New England summer arts camp in 1974.  There are 6 talented, bright, and somewhat privileged teens.  A bit full of themselves, they dub themselves "The Interestings".  The book moves back and forth in time as they graduate from high school, attend college, and move into their adult lives.  A core group of four of the members continue to be connected a bit more than I find believable for the era....I would believe it more with the Facebook generation.  Otherwise the author has done her research and the cultural data in the book as time passes is spot on.  The narrative moves back and forth in time.  It is mostly omniscient, but tends to be more from the viewpoint of Jules Jacobson, the character who becomes a mental health social worker, than the rest of the characters.  I found the story to be engaging as an audiobook, but am not sure I would have had the patience to read it.  Think The Big Chill for the generation that followed.

And we'll finish off with a little nonfiction, the memoir of Sonia Sotomayor:  My Beloved World.  The audiobook is narrated by Rita Moreno, which was a huge plus for me.  Sonia Sotomayor's memoir gives us a candid peek into the early life of the first Hispanic, female Supreme Court Justice of the U.S. The first portion of the book deals with her diagnosis with Type I diabetes at age 7, the dysfunctional marriage of her parents and her father's struggle with and demise from alcoholism.

She shares the joys and heartaches of belonging to a large extended family of Puerto Rican descent growing up in the Bronx in the 1960's. A central figure in her life was her mother, who placed a high value on education. She demonstrated this to her children by earning her LPN despite language difficulties, and by sacrificing to send both of her children to private Catholic schools.
 As a carry over from her mother's influence, much of this memoir focuses on the author's educational experiences and achievements, which are truly remarkable. Including a full undergraduate scholarship to Princeton followed by law school at Yale. She was married from 1976 to 1983 to her high school sweetheart, but the demands of her work in the district attorney's office and her husband's graduate school created a divide that could not be bridged and the marriage failed.

Her early law career in the district attorney's office, then later in private practice are chronicled in an almost case study style. The author seems to use these cases to explain how her style as a judge has been formed by experience.

In some ways the book is surprisingly revealing for a Supreme Court Justice. And yet, once the book is finished, one can't help but feel that she has also been quite reserved. I greatly appreciated (and derived some hope) from a section at the end of the memoir where she discusses the importance of making decisions based on the context of a situation rather than rigidly sticking to some ideology.

Well...with that comment, it appears I have unintentionally ended up back where I started.  So, there you go.  Six books that I found worth reading.   I'd be interested to know if you read them.  But now, I'm off to wind a warp...and maybe listen to a book.

1 comment:

  1. Mudbound broke my heart. It gave me nightmares and I don't think I'm up for more of same. I looked at The Interestings and haven't decided - I like the author. I got caught up in nonfiction again. I wish I could read faster.


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