Robert Low

The White Raven is the third book in Robert Low’s Viking Oathsworn series. Low doesn’t disappoint. This is book is as exciting as The Whale Road and probably even better than The Wolf Sea. Low picks up the thread where he left off in The Wolf Sea. Orm Bearslayer, leader of the Oathsworn, wants nothing more than to settle down and have a quiet life. But circumstances are against him and he is forced to lead his men on another adventure, this time across the frozen steppes in frigid weather.

Bound by their oath to each other, the Oathsworn set off to avenge an attack on their settlement and to retrieve those taken as hostages. They become embroiled in a cat and mouse chase to obtain the hoard of treasure buried in Attila’s burial mound. There is continuity from the previous books even though one doesn’t have to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as Low provides brief explanatory paragraphs when necessary.

The White Raven continues the tradition of its predecessors by plunging us into the chest-thumping, sword-thrashing, axe-wielding, womanizing, foul smelling, and vulgar speaking world of Low’s Vikings. But our immersion in this very masculine world is tempered somewhat by the presence of two very strong prominent females who are more than capable of navigating in male domain and who give as good as they get. And then there are the fierce Amazonian tribeswomen. They earn the respect of the Oathsworn because, like them, they are bound to each other by an oath of loyalty and are willing to fight to the death to honor their word.

The novel is choke-full of thrilling action. The characters are well-developed and engaging. Amidst the blood and carnage, Low sprinkles references to the Slavic and Norse mythology and folklore embedded in the characters’ daily lives. One of the most intriguing characters is a young prince with a talent for telling fables and folktales that capture the attention of this band of burly men as they huddle together for warmth.

Robert Low’s extensive research on the era adds authenticity and credibility to the people and events. He is a gifted story-teller who totally immerses the reader in the rough and tumble, full-blooded world of the Vikings in all its vivid, sensory detail.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of historical fiction.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Christa Wolf; Trans. Jan Van Heurck

Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan Van Heurck, presents the fall of Troy and its aftermath through the first-person point of view of Cassandra, a daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. According to Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo after she promised to become his consort. When she reneged on her promise, Apollo cursed her so no one would believe her prophesies.

We meet Cassandra as she is about to face her death. She weaves descriptions of her current situation with flashes of the past. She describes the deterioration of Troy into a virtual police state, a situation that creeps up fueled by a war that generates fear and superstition among her people and within members of her family. She is horrified by the changes she witnesses in the behaviors and values of those she loves. She warns of the impending doom, but her voice is marginalized and eventually silenced. She witnesses the brutality of war, the deaths of family and friends, and the destruction of her city.

Through Cassandra, Wolf voices her opinions on the insanity of war and its corrosive impact. As the novel unfolds, we see truth manipulated to serve political aims. Hostilities force people into adopting positions contrary to their previous nature. Deceptions and lies are reiterated until they assume the strength of dogma. The whole fabric of society crumbles until what remains is no longer recognizable. In war, everyone loses.

One of the many interesting aspects of the novel is the way in which the women of Troy carve a physical and psychological space for themselves outside of male domain. There is a sense of sisterhood and unity among women. They share intimate details of their lives, soothe each other’s wounds with healing balms, administer medicinal herbs and plants, and interpret dreams. Cassandra finds solace and comfort in the company of these women, a respite from the male machinations in the palace.

The book includes a collection of four essays in which Wolf describes her travels to ancient sites in Greece and Crete. Cassandra’s vision and voice are never far from her mind and eventually take shape as Wolf treks through these ancient sites. Woven into her travelogue are her musing on Cassandra. We are given a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an author’s creative process taking shape as it is being informed by her travels, research, and readings of Classical literature.

Wolf’s writing is intense and powerful. She conveys her views with passion and conviction. The writing is dense and energetic. At times, it can pose a challenge to keep track of her meditations on Cassandra, on the fall of Troy, on the impact of war, and on the political upheavals caused by the Cold War during the 1980s when she wrote the novel. But it is a challenge worth facing because what emerges is the voice of a talented author with a profound sensitivity to the state of the world and the political turmoil that surround her.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eugene Vodolazkin; Trans. Lisa C. Hayden

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, is the story of Arseny, a fictional fifteenth-century Russian folk healer, holy man, mystic, and pilgrim. Orphaned at a young age, he lives with his grandfather, Christofer, who teaches him to heal the sick through prayer, a healing hand, and traditional folk remedies using plants and herbs.

When Christofer dies, Arseny assumes the role of village healer. He experiences distinct stages in his life, each of which corresponds to a change in his name. As Arseny, he is the village healer and the lover of Ustina. When she dies giving birth to their stillborn baby, Arseny blames himself and embarks on a life of atonement, traveling from one village to the next. Every good deed he performs is done on behalf of Ustina; every mishap or catastrophe he experiences is interpreted as punishment for Ustina’s death.

Temporarily assuming the name Ustin, he abstains from speech and is known as a mute holy man with miraculous healing powers. He reverts to the name Arseny, goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and survives an attack by bandits. Upon his return, he joins a monastery and is given the name Amvrosy. People flock to the monastery to experience his healing powers. He adopts the name Laurus in his declining years and leaves the monastery in search of a quiet place to die. Taking up residence in a cave near the village where he was born, he continues to heal the sick until he dies peacefully in his sleep.

This is a highly unusual novel that defies classification. Although situated in the Middle Ages, it feels timeless. The narrative is episodic in nature with unexpected shifts in time. One of its recurring themes is the proposition that time progresses in a circular motion. The past and future mingle with the present. The past is a constant present in Arseny’s mind, and the occasional forward leaps into the future occur through prophetic visions of the 20th Century. Arseny’s life journey illustrates the theme by coming full circle when he returns to the place of his birth to die.

Vodolazkin skillfully evokes the zeitgeist of the late Middle Ages with its pestilence and periodic outbreaks of the plague, its reliance on herbs and plants for healing, its superstitions, and its pervasive Christianity that permeates all aspects of life. Unusual events, prophetic visions, miracles, extra-sensory perceptions, and mysteries abound. Interpreted religiously, they are treated as a matter of course.

The diction is unpretentious, almost child-like in its simplicity, contributing to the feel of a fable told for moral edification. Interspersed throughout are conversations rendered with Chaucerian spelling—the addition of an extra ‘e’ to the end of a word or the substitution of ‘y’ for ‘i’. There is also the occasional lapse into 20thC slang, striking for its incongruity.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of the novel lies in its sympathetic treatment of Arseny, a humble man who articulates profound insights in simple phraseology. He communicates with wild animals, treats victims of the plague with impunity, and has several narrow escapes from death. He abstains from worldly comforts, embraces physical deprivation, seeks simplicity, and desires nothing more than to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. A devout Christian who lives his faith, he engages in one-way conversations with God and with the deceased Ustina whose untimely death catapults him into a life of penance. His predominant quality is his humility.

This is an inspiring novel with elements of mysticism, magical realism, and allegory, all of which are infused with an atmosphere of fables, fairy tales, and myth.  

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Angela Carter

Enter the topsy-turvy world of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus where you will travel from London to Petersburg to Siberia, where you will encounter waltzing tigers, literate chimpanzees, introspective elephants, a clairvoyant pig, and where you will meet a motley crew of very unusual characters. Best of all, you will go on this raucous journey with the inimitable Fevvers— a part woman, part swan hybrid. She is a tall, statuesque aerieliste with a penchant for spouting earthy, no-nonsense wisdom in her delightful Cockney accent.

We first encounter Fevvers as she is being interviewed by Jack Walser, an American journalist. She claims to have been hatched from an egg; abandoned; raised in a brothel by Lizzie, her surrogate mother and constant companion; sprouts wings; learns to fly; and joins Colonel Kearney’s circus to become the talk of Europe with her dazzling skills on the trapeze. Walser falls in love with her and decides to join the same circus disguised as a clown to unearth her secrets. What follows is a rollicking ride from one bizarre event to another, parts of which are told in Fevvers’ raunchy dialog infused with feminism and a gritty, down-to-earth perspective.

Angela Carter takes the reader on a magical carpet ride. The price of admission is to abandon the world of reality and logical thought. Her prose is brisk, colorful, engaging, and smattered with some inspirational words from Shakespeare, Blake, and Yeats among others, as well as with the occasional dip into scatological humor. Her abrupt shifts in points of view keep readers on their toes. One never quite knows what to expect. We are hurtled from one bizarre happening to another—much like a trapeze artist soaring in mid-air with no knowledge of where one will land or what awaits upon landing.

This is an exhilarating ride made all the more delightful because we are accompanying the thoroughly enchanting, totally unconventional Fevvers. In her cockney accent, swan’s feathers, larger-than-life body, gritty wisdom, and voracious appetite, what’s not to love?

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Nadine Gordimer

How do you define home? Is it where you were born? What about family? Is it the people who raised you? These are some of the issues Nadine Gordimer explores in her novel, The Pickup.

Meet Julie Summers. Born into an affluent white South African family, she is the poor little rich girl skirting through life, working at an unfulfilling job, spouting pretentious jargon with liberal friends. Ashamed of her wealthy father and her social butterfly of a step-mother, she rebels against everything they represent. Although thirty years old, she has yet to find her place in the world. Then, one day, her car breaks down. And Julie’s life changes.

Enter Abdu/Ibrahim, a young Arab mechanic who repairs her car. It’s no surprise when the two become lovers. Abdu’s illegal immigration status is discovered by authorities. He has 10 days to leave the country. Julie decides to join him. They get married and board the plane to an unnamed country somewhere in the Arab world.

Abdu/Ibrahim is ashamed of the primitive conditions of life in his village. He is baffled by Julie’s cheerful willingness to acculturate to her adopted home, to embrace its rituals and traditions, its gendered roles and restrictions. He anticipates her announcement on any given day that she is heading back to daddy in South Africa. Meanwhile, he races from one consulate to another, desperate to obtain a visa to any western country that will accept him. Eventually, he obtains a visa to America and makes plans to leave his village, fully expecting Julie to accompany him. But Julie has other ideas. She refuses to leave. She has found home. She has found family.

In the hands of an inexperienced writer, the story borders on being cliché. Poor little rich girl falls in love. Marries a man beneath her social standing. Follows him to a foreign culture. Finds her place in the world. But the story is anything but cliché in the hands of Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Gordimer treats her characters with empathy and sensitivity. Her portrayal of even tertiary characters is masterful and authentic. She captures the halting English and cadences of Abdu/Ibrahim; his desperate struggle to escape from his village; his eagerness to plunge headlong into a country he knows nothing about in the hope of a better life; his yearning for success within a capitalist society; and his complete inability to understand his wife. In Julie she captures her slow and bumpy transformation from recognizing the superficial life of white privilege that characterized her previous existence to an understanding that what constitutes home and family has little to do with material wealth. Julie immerses herself in the daily rituals of cooking and cleaning; of the muezzin’s call to prayer that punctuates the rhythms of the day; in the silence of the desert that speaks to her; and in the cooperation, community, love, and warmth she finds in her adopted family. Both Abdu/Ibrahim and Julie are searching for home, for a place to belong. Ironically, their search leads them in opposite directions.

Gordimer’s writing style presents some challenges. Fragments and incomplete thoughts abound. The language shifts from internal thoughts to spoken dialog without the usual indicators of quotation marks. Gordimer dispenses with, “he said/she said,” so one has to use context to determine who said what. But once you get accustomed to the writing style, the language flows seamlessly from thought to spoken word, from one character to another in a way that accurately captures the fragmentary nature of our thoughts and conversations.

This is a wonderful novel that slowly grows on you as it builds to its climax through the use of telling details. Offering a vision of how we can communicate and relate to one another across barriers of difference, The Pickup is a compelling story told by a master of the craft.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Patrick Chamoiseau; Trans. Linda Coverdale

On the surface, Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale, is a straightforward story of the struggles of an old slave as he escapes from a Martinique plantation. Chased by a vicious dog and his master, the slave enters a lush rain forest where nature runs rampant, providing fodder for hallucinations and wild imaginings.

But this is anything but a straightforward story. One could argue it is not really a story at all but a thrilling piece of lyrical poetry. The sheer energy and lyricism of the language propels the story forward, embroiling the reader in the lushness of its diction while immersing us in the plushness of the rain forest. The narrative is gripping, fast-paced, and dense.

As the elderly slave breathlessly runs, twists, and turns in this wild terrain, his mind hallucinates with twists and turns. His journey deep into the forest is transformative, triggering a journey deep into his past. What’s real and what’s imagined become inextricably intertwined with the elderly slave populating his narrative with flashbacks of his harrowing journey from Africa; and with references to and imaginings of the Creole culture of Martinique; with Caribbean history, mythology, and folklore. The reader is swept up in a wave with no sure footing as to what is happening. The journey is archetypal. The forest assumes mythical proportions, housing monsters, mysteries, and secrets older than time itself.

This book may not be for everyone. Smatterings of words in French or Creole, references that require flipping to the Notes at the end of the book, prose that is lyrical and non-linear, and the juxtaposition of the real with the imaginary make it a challenging read. But it is a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys being swept up by exhilarating prose with an electrifying, haunting quality.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Nadine Gordimer

You wake up one morning and you realize you and your family are in danger. You are no longer safe in your home in Johannesburg because of the popular uprising against the apartheid. You consider yourself to be a liberal white, someone who supports civil liberties and equality for all. But that makes no difference. You will be targeted if you stay in your home. What do you do? Where can you go?

This is the situation of the Smales family in July’s People by Nadine Gordimer. Mother, father, and their three children are out of options. So July, their servant of 15 years, offers to take them back to his village. For the first time in their lives, the Smales find themselves living under primitive conditions in a barely habitable dwelling with no running water and no proper sanitation. They have nowhere else to go and are entirely dependent on July for their survival. The balance of power has shifted. How July and the Smales navigate this shift is the subject of Gordimer’s novel.

The tension surfaces most clearly in Maureen Smales’ interaction with July and in her attempts to navigate a space for herself in July’s village. It does so initially in the details of everyday life. It is no longer relevant to sustain the master/servant relationship when the daily routines of eating, sleeping, cooking, and personal hygiene are shared on an intimate level. Eventually, the tension comes to a boil when July confronts Maureen because of her past treatment of him as her house boy. She is shocked by his accusation since she considered herself to be compassionate and humane toward July. But what she comes to realize is that no matter how compassionate or humane she had been, the very nature of their relationship and the context under which they operated deprived July of his dignity. In the face of systemic oppression, kind gestures are ultimately meaningless.

Gordimer’s exploration of the July/Smales relationship is a microcosm of the shift in power that occurs on a large political scale. The two sides struggle to find a balance, to ascertain how to view themselves, how to view each other, and how to interact with each other under these new circumstances. Gordimer does not provide any easy answers. The patterns of behavior are so ingrained that it is not easy to transcend them. The novel ends inconclusively with Maureen running toward the sound of a helicopter which may or may not be their salvation. The future is uncertain for the Smales and for July and his people.

Gordimer packs a lot in this very short novel. The characters are complex and multidimensional. They show their anxieties, conflicts, and struggles as they try to adjust to their new circumstances and shifting power structure. The dialog was authentic. July’s cadences and diction were especially effective in conveying his voice. The imagery captured the sights, sounds, and smells of a primitive village lacking in all modern conveniences.

This is not a light read, but it is a powerful one. Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Tommy Orange

There, There by Tommy Orange is a stunning novel, skillfully orchestrated and breathtaking in execution. The voice is powerful, full of rage, poignant, and heartbreaking.

The narrative unfolds from the point of view of twelve characters whose backstories reveal their struggles with poverty, drug-addiction, and alcoholism as they seek to understand and wrestle with their Native American identity. They converge at the Big Oakland Powwow in a riveting climax. With its characteristic pageantry and spectacle of traditional dance and music, the powwow attracts large numbers of people, including a group of young men who are there to commit a crime—to steal its lucrative prize money.

The narrative begins in the past with shattered families plagued with poverty and drug-addiction. It leaps forward in time with a new generation, some of whom are eager to claim their Native American heritage. The point of view shifts from past tense to present tense, from first person to third person, from one character to another. Each character speaks with a distinctive and authentic voice. Depending on who is speaking, the tone varies from resignation, to anger, to rage, to frustration, to a drug-induced or alcohol induced reverie. The sections get progressively shorter to quicken the pace as we hurtle toward the climax.

As the novel unfolds, we learn some of the characters’ lives intertwined in the past and some are related—a son encounters his father for the first time; a woman suspects the older woman she just met may be her birth mother; a grandmother sees her grandson for the first time. Underlying these interwoven stories is the heavy burden of a marginalized people struggling desperately to survive against brutal atrocities and attempts at erasure.

This is an incredibly powerful, gut-wrenching novel. Tommy Orange captures the heartache and struggles of each of his characters. After simultaneously introducing the characters and revealing their backstories, he slowly but surely leads them to converge in a climactic finish at the powwow. Orange sets the stage is if directing a play with each character making a separate entrance from a different corner of the stage. He navigates the drama, inching his characters forward until they meet at center-stage in a violent crescendo. The effect is riveting; the pace relentless; the voice explosive; the language breathtaking.

An amazing debut novel from an extremely gifted writer. Very highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto is based on two lectures Beard delivered in 2014 and 2017 entitled, “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”

Beard begins “The Public Voice of Women” by referring to the scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus asserts his manhood by silencing his mother. From there Beard provides an overview of the silencing of women in the public sphere in antiquity through to contemporary times. She explores how women’s voices are verbally attacked and their body parts labeled in derogatory terms all because they dared to express an opinion in public; how their voices are marginalized in the workplace; how this impacts women’s voices; and the de-gendered gyrations women have to adopt if they want to be taken seriously in the public arena.

“Women in Power” begins with Beard’s exploration of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a utopia in which women are the only residents. They live in peace and harmony until all is disrupted by the entrance of three American males. Beard uses this story as a jumping point for exploring our gendered attitude toward women in power. She shows that when men and women think of a person in a position of power, the image that comes to mind is that of a white male. In other words, women are still not used to seeing themselves in that role.

Beard traces this attitude back to women in Athenian drama—Medea, Clytemnestra, and Antigone. Each is depicted as de-gendered, as a monstrous hybrid. She interrogates Athena, a female goddess who bears little resemblance to a female. She is not born of woman, dresses as a warrior, is an eternal virgin, and wears a breastplate with the image of a decapitated Medusa—a symbol of male mastery over female power.

Beard includes a striking illustration of Cellini’s statue holding up the severed head of Medusa. This image was manipulated during the recent U.S. election. The face of Hillary Clinton was superimposed on the face of Medusa and the face of Donald Trump superimposed on the face of Perseus, holding up the Medusa/Clinton severed head. Apparently, this image was fairly popular among Trump supporters during the previous election. The image speaks volumes not only about the tenor of the previous election but also about male power silencing the female.

Beard suggests some interesting connections of classical imagery and literature with 21st Century examples of misogyny. She concludes her work by arguing for a change in paradigms—specifically, for a change in how we define and perceive power. She calls for a feminine centered power structure, one that reflects and upholds the values traditionally associated with the feminine: connection, collaboration, nurturance, and sharing. This is a laudable goal. But the question of how we can achieve this goal remains unanswered as Beard does not adequately address it.

A good introduction to feminist thinking.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Riad Sattouf; Trans. Sam Taylor

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor, is Sattouf’s memoir in the form of a graphic novel. This first book in the trilogy describes Sattouf’s early childhood in France, Libya, and Syria. It opens when he is two years old and concludes when he is the ripe old age of six.

Born of a French mother and Syrian father, Sattouf experiences life in France, in Gaddafi’s Libya, and in Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria. He describes the sights, smells, sounds, and events with unflinching honesty and innocence, without judgement, and through the unfiltered perception and inquisitiveness of a child. And that is what makes this graphic memoir so compelling because what Sattouf witnesses and describes so innocently can cause one to recoil in horror.

Educated in France where he met his future wife, Sattouf’s father takes a job as an associate professor in Libya. While there, Riad learns that in Gaddafi’s Libya homes are free and their doors cannot be locked. He also learns homes are a free-for all in which a family outing can result in the loss of one’s home since even a temporarily vacant home is considered available for occupation by strangers. Food is in short supply; poverty is rampant; and the whole country looks as if it is under construction.

From Libya, Riad’s father moves his family to Syria to be closer to relatives. Riad’s blond hair attracts admiration from some and ridicule from others. He is bullied mercilessly and labeled a Jew by neighborhood street gangs, later revealed to be his cousins. He witnesses horrifying acts of cruelty to animals; child abuse; gender, racial, and religious discrimination; othering; and violence. A crumbling infrastructure and a stifling atmosphere permeated with pollution and the smell of raw sewage rounds up his experience in Syria. The novel concludes with the family returning to Syria after spending their summer vacation in France.

As a former contributor to the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, Sattouf is well versed in satire. Because he speaks through the innocent voice of a child in the novel, his narrative is laced with irony and satire. The young Riad is an unreliable narrator who does not comprehend the import of his words. He idolizes his father who, in actuality, is a conflicted individual with a distorted self-image and delusional visions of reality. His mother is portrayed as a voiceless non-entity. The poverty, the stench, the bizarre behavior of his relatives, the abuse, and the bullying are all described through the eye of a naïve child trying to make sense of bewildering situations. The observations are authentic, unfiltered, and presented with unabashed honesty.

Just as is the case with the text, Sattouf’s illustrations are expressive and exaggerate the predominant quality of a person’s features and/or surroundings. He is a skilled cartoonist and a skilled story teller with an ability to expose the disturbing elements, the poverty, the corruption, and the chaos of Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria as seen through the eyes of innocence. But while the novel highlights some traditional Muslim behaviors, it bears remembering that many of these behaviors are taken out of context, grossly exaggerated, and do not reflect Muslim behavior or attitudes either then or now.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mia Couto; Trans. David Brookshaw

Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw, is the first book in a forthcoming trilogy that tells the story Portugal’s attempt to colonize the southern Mozambique territory of Gaza in 1894. The territory is claimed by Ngungunyane, the last of Gaza’s leaders. He has raised an army to fight the colonizers, and as the novel opens, Ngungunyane and his warriors are making their way toward the border village of Nkokolani where the story takes place.

The narrative alternates between the voices of two individuals: Imani, the fifteen-year girl of the VaChopi tribe, hired to interpret for the Portuguese; and Sergeant Germano de Melo, appointed as captain of the garrison at Nkokolani to represent the interests of the Portuguese crown. Germano’s narrative takes the form of letters to his supervisor in which he assesses the current political situation. His letters gradually become increasingly personal and confessional with the passage of time. Imani, who learned to speak fluent Portuguese at the mission school, is conflicted. Her situation is fraught with tension: her father is an abusive alcoholic; her mother continues to mourn the death of her children; her two surviving brothers are on opposite sides of the conflict; and she and Germano gravitate between love and hate in their relationship.

There is much to admire in the novel. Couto skillfully depicts the clash of cultures, miscommunications, deceptions, and attitudes of the colonizers and the indigenous peoples. And as is frequently the case, the indigenous people are split between those who support the colonizer and those who want to rid the country from the yoke of foreign oppression. This split takes the form of internecine violence with one tribe perpetrating atrocities on its neighbors. The situation is multi-layered and riddled with a complexity that is reflected in the alternating voices of the narrators.

Stories taken from African folklore, superstitions, dreams and their interpretation, and the occurrence of bizarre events all thread their way intermittently throughout the narrative. Many of these are taken seriously and interpreted as warning signs by the indigenous population; many are summarily dismissed by Germano as the belief systems of a primitive people.

The weakest element in the novel lay in its characterization. The characters are flat and one-dimensional with a portrayal that is stereotypical. Imani’s voice and diction are not reflective of a fifteen-year old girl. Her forays into self-doubt and existential angst lack authenticity. Germano’s letters are self-indulgent and full of self-pity. And other than the difference in content, there is little to distinguish Imani’s diction from that of Germano’s. Having said that, however, if one is willing to forgo the dearth of characterization, the novel does tell a compelling story, a story that sheds light on a turbulent period in Mozambique history, a story that has been repeated many times over and in many different forms whenever and wherever the colonizer and colonized clash.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an essay based on the author’s December 2012 TED talk. It is a short, quick read that packs a hefty punch. Using personal anecdotes of her experiences in her native Nigeria, as well as the experiences of herself and others in different parts of the world, Adichie deconstructs the word “feminism,” stripping it of its stigmatization while explaining its tenets in easy to understand, relatable terms. She exposes some of the ways sexism makes its ubiquitous presence felt in our everyday lives.

Adichie’s voice is not shrill or confrontational. She is engaging, non-threatening, and inclusive. She does not point fingers or assign blame but uses wit coupled with the eye of a keen observer to illuminate the ways and frequency in which women are marginalized. She appeals to all men to examine their words and actions through the prism of feminism to expose the possibility of underlying sexist assumptions. Her goal is to educate others by exposing the deleterious effects of sexism on society. She argues that strictly defined gender roles restrict both men and women into conforming to the expectations placed on them by society. The result is inauthentic selfhood. As examples, she offers women dressing and behaving in ways to garner acceptance; men suppressing emotions to appear manly.

Adichie aims to build bridges for a common cause that will benefit all. Although the ideas she expresses are not particularly groundbreaking, she should be credited for articulating the basic tenets of feminism and popularizing them through her TED talk and booklet. She does it in a manner that is non-threatening, engaging, logical, and one that is likely to win converts to the cause.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a graphic memoir about the struggles Bui’s family faced in Vietnam, their subsequent immigration to the United States, and the challenges they faced in adjusting to their new country. Bui’s entrance into motherhood is the catalyst that prompts her to seek a better understanding of her parents—their lives in Vietnam, why and how they escaped from their homeland, and the sacrifices they made to build a new life for themselves and their children in America. As a result of her exploration, she learns what it means to be a parent.

Although Bui describes the oppression and discrimination suffered by her family as civilians in Vietnam and then as immigrants in the U.S., her description seems detached, almost bordering on being clinical. It is as if she were describing their experiences through a veneer. There is such little depth to the characterization that it barely scrapes the surface. As a result, it is difficult to connect with any of the characters. This detachment may have been intentional on the author’s part, but it places a heavy burden on the reader to be interested in the outcome. The sketchy characterization, disjointed dialogue, and snippets of information dropped here and there were not helped by a narrative that jumped from one location to another, from one time to another. The art work, while quite good, might have profited by being less monochromatic.

I sympathize with the author and her family for all the hardships they experienced. I just wish the memoir could have been more compelling.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Katie Hickman

Courtesans: Money, Sex, and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman is a social biography exploring the fascinating lives of five renowned courtesans—Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786), Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1842), Harriette Wilson (1786-1845), Cora Pearl (1835-1886), and Catherine Walters (1839-1920). Hickman charts the illustrious career of each courtesan, beginning with her life either as a prostitute or actress (a word synonymous with prostitute at the time).

Each courtesan is described as a unique individual. Sophia Baddeley recklessly spent exorbitant amounts of money; Elizabeth Armistead was an astute businesswoman who secured annuities from each of her successive patrons, enabling her to purchase homes for herself; the enterprising Harriette Wilson threatened to name names in her salacious memoir of 1825 unless she was duly compensated; the candid Cora Pearl valued her independence to such a degree she refused marriage proposals, claiming she detested men too much to ever obey one of them; and Catherine Walters (Skittles) excelled in horsemanship and in having an exceedingly small waist.

Some courtesans were able to move up the social ladder by attracting the attentions of wealthy, aristocratic patrons, (many of whom were European royalty) who then showered them with gifts and money and set them up in their own residences. Referred to as “kept women,” they frequently adopted the last name of their patron as if they were unofficially married. And some eventually married their patron.

The extravagant life-style of the courtesan was fodder for the gossip columnists. They and their patrons were frequently listed in the celebrity gossip section of Town and Country Magazine so all could see who was “keeping” whom and what benefits the “kept” woman received, including copious amounts of money, a home, servants, jewelry, etc. The successful courtesan demanded and received an all-expenses paid set up. Although the terms varied, for the most part, the courtesan was expected to make herself available exclusively to her patron at all times—that is, until he got tired of her and/or until he discovered her infidelity. Accomplished courtesans were highly sought after by men competing with each other to win her favor. The more prestigious her clientele, the more desirable she became, and the harder men would try to lure her from her current patron.

In addition to their dripping sexual allure and good looks, some courtesans were accomplished musicians, singers, actresses, and conversationalists. Admired by women as well as men, they were the fashionistas of their day, setting the trend for clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. But by the early nineteenth century, the general public became less tolerant of courtesans and extra-marital relationships. Men no longer gleefully paraded their mistresses around for all to see. The celebrity status of the courtesan declined, her work becoming enshrouded in secrecy; her transactions conducted in private.

Hickman provides more than an engaging biography of the lives of these five women. She gives us a detailed view of the life and mores of upper class nineteenth-century Europe, occasionally veering off into areas that are only tangentially relevant. Her research is well documented with extensive notes, sources, and bibliography. Her style is accessible, lively, and engaging.

Hickman treats her subjects with sympathy, admiring them for their fierce independence. But her claim that they are “a powerful symbol of a woman’s potential for autonomy” is, perhaps, a bridge too far. These women forged their identities based on their perceptions of what men desired. They were also totally dependent on a series of men to provide them with financial security and to maintain them in their extravagant lifestyles—a situation that doesn’t lend itself to the image of an autonomous female.

This was an engaging and highly informative read. It is recommended for those interested in cultural history and in understanding how and why a group of women cultivated the role of courtesans in nineteenth-century Europe.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Shirley Ann Grau

Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House is a stunning masterpiece of epic proportions. Winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, the novel is a scathing indictment of racism and its damaging impact. It chronicles several generations of the Howland family in a rural Alabama community. The narrative begins in the early 1800s with the first Howland. His descendants gradually acquire more and more land in the county, becoming the biggest landowners. The narrative culminates with Abigail Howland in the 1960s. Grau weaves an intricate fabric with care and precision, gradually connecting disparate threads of time, place, and people until she draws us into its stunning conclusion.

The story is told in the voice of Abigail Howland, the granddaughter of the last William Howland. Abigail provides the backstory of her ancestors, going back a few generations; leads into her wealthy grandfather with whom she spent her formative years after her mother’s illness and death; and then takes us to her own marriage, the birth of her children, and her return to the Howland estate.

The narrative takes an unexpected turn when the widowed William Howland invites a young Negro name Margaret to be his housekeeper. He fathers five children with her, only three of whom survive. This was a time when interracial marriage was still considered a crime in the South. As long as Howland didn’t formalize his relationship with his mistress, the community looked the other way. But under the veneer of a supportive extended family and a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and where weddings and funerals are community-wide affairs, there lurks the insidious head of racism. Shortly after his death when Howland’s actual marriage to Margaret is exposed, all hell breaks loose, and Abigail is forced to defend her home against her white neighbors who try to set it on fire.

Grau has woven an intricate story with memorable characters in an authentic setting. Through her use of vivid sensory details, she immerses us in the small Alabama community with its swamps and woodlands; its snakes and alligators; its seasonal fluctuations; its farming and livestock; its sights, sounds, and smells; its racial prejudice; and its politics. She introduces us to a host of characters, depicting them as unique individuals with their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.

Particularly impressive is Grau’s ability to capture the dialect, subtleties, and nuances in speech of each of her characters, especially William Howland and Margaret. Although Howland is a man of few words, he emerges as an authentic, fully-fleshed out individual who casts his expansive shadow over the community even after his death. And through her sparse but astute dialogue, Margaret emerges as a strong, fiercely determined, intelligent, and resilient woman. The characters come alive on the page. Some have imbibed the bigotry of the times and the place; others try to navigate their bi-racial relationships and bi-racial identities the best way they know how in an environment that is hostile to both.

This is a complex novel with complex characters. Grau eloquently evokes the landscape, atmosphere, and inhabitants of a rural Southern town. She builds her story with skill, adding layer upon layer as she moves us forward in time. Through her characters, she illustrates how racism and bigotry influence the difficult choices we make in our lives and the choices we make for our children. She illustrates how a community that has known you all your life can turn against you because of its intolerance. And through the character of Abigail, she illustrates how a young girl, sheltered from the harsh realities of life, grows into an empowered female, fiercely determined to confront racial prejudice and to defend her family’s legacy. By the end of the novel, Abigail Howland has earned her title as the keeper of the house.

A powerful story told with eloquence, passion, and heart. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Trans. Emily Wilson

The Odyssey by Homer. Trans. Emily Wilson is the first published translation by a woman of Homer’s Odyssey. As with any translation, the translator has an infinite number of choices to make in terms of diction, emphasis, ambiguities in the language, meter, etc. Wilson’s choices make for a unified and consistent approach, drawing attention to subtleties and nuances in the work that had previously been overlooked. Her translation invites a new reading of The Odyssey.

Wilson makes some interesting choices. Her unabashedly gendered perspective exposes some of the gender bias in previous translations. Her translation has the advantage of fleshing out the female characters, treating them with sympathy. In the case of the slave girls who are executed at the end of the poem, Wilson’s language suggests they should not have been held culpable for cooperating with the suitors since they were slaves and had no choice. Throughout her translation, Wilson stresses the interplay of gender relations; the silencing of mortal female voices; and the deep-seated male fears about female power.

Using sparse, clear diction presented in the familiar rhythm of iambic pentamer, Wilson’s translation is probably the most accessible and readable of all its predecessors. It has a very down-to-earth, plainly spoken feel to it, stripping it of the grand epic voice we have come to associate with an epic poem. But her occasional use of colloquialism has a jarring effect. One hardly expects to hear Telemachus addressing Eurycleia as “Nanny” or Penelope addressing her as “sweetheart,” or Telemachus addressing Eumaeus as “Grandpa,” or the use of “canapés” for what Fitzgerald translates as “savories.”

Wilson’s thoughtful and scholarly translation of The Odyssey yields new and interesting ways of interpreting the poem. She has made a significant contribution to our understanding of The Odyssey by translating it through a different set of lenses. And just as Caroline Alexander shattered a glass ceiling by being the first female to publish a translation of the Iliad, Emily Wilson has done the same with her translation of The Odyssey. That alone makes it a worthwhile read.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is a curious little book. It tells the story of Florence Green, an elderly, kind-hearted widow who decides to open a bookshop in her small coastal town of Hardborough, England, in 1959. She purchases the ‘Old House,’ a dilapidated structure that had remained vacant for several years. Although she meets with opposition, most notably from Mrs. Gamart, a prominent member of the community, Florence remains undaunted and eventually succeeds in opening the bookshop in the Old House, taking up residence on the second floor. She is fully aware—as is everyone in the community—that she shares her residence with a poltergeist (“a rapper”) who intermittently makes its presence felt with loud bangs and other noisy interruptions.

Florence’s efforts as a bookshop owner yield initial success. She starts a lending library and hires the ten-year old Christine Gipping as her assistant. But Florence’s success proves to be her downfall. Complaints are launched about the crowds lining outside her bookshop to purchase a copy of Lolita. Florence is eventually undone by Mrs. Gamart’s nephew who succeeds in passing an act of Parliament that permits the government to order a compulsory purchase of the Old House. The law is used as a weapon by those in power to get their way. The bank abandons Florence; her neighbors don’t rally to her support. The novel concludes with Florence admitting defeat as she exits town.

The novel was disappointing. The title was misleading since this is not a novel about a bookshop but about small-minded, selfish people, not one of whom is a particularly engaging or well-developed character. Florence is kindly and gentle and a formidable fighter when backed into a corner. But it is never made clear why she decides to open a bookshop, especially since she doesn’t display an inordinate passion for books. She just decides to do it, does it, succeeds temporarily, and then is forced to shut down. She is convinced a bookshop is a good idea that will benefit the community. But she underestimates the lengths people will go to resist change.

The subplot with the resident poltergeist is baffling since it is never developed. One wonders why it was included in the first place. Florence is nonplussed by the rapper, taking its presence in stride. And for its part, the rapper does nothing more than clutter about upstairs or make the occasional loud noise. Nothing comes of it, and it all seems a rather superfluous addition.

At 123 pages, the novel is a quick and easy read, but it isn’t one I would necessarily recommend.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Wilfred Thesiger

 In The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger describes his intermittent eight-year stay with the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq during the 1950s. The marshlands consist of a 6,000 square area of wetlands where the Tigris and Euphrates close in on each other and eventually meet before flowing into the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, pass the city of Basra, and merge into the Arabian Gulf. Regarded by many historians as the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden and Great Flood, the area is known as the cradle of civilization. The Sumerians established a thriving civilization in the area, establishing an elaborate irrigation system that allowed the culture to flourish. Their descendants are the modern-day marsh dwellers.

Seeking to lose himself in a place untrammeled by the trappings of modern civilization, a place where people live as they have lived for many thousand years, Thesiger found what he was looking for in the marshlands. He lived among the Marsh Arabs for the better part of eight years, traveled from one village to the next in his tarada (canoe) with his skilled canoe boys; stayed at the village mudhif (guest house); enjoyed legendary Arab hospitality; ate meals and drank endless cups of coffee and tea with his hosts; hunted alongside them for game, pigs, boars, and other wildlife; witnessed the hardships of drought and flooding on their crops; participated in a mourning ceremony; and observed them building their incredible structures made of tightly bound reeds. In short, Thesiger experienced life with the Marsh Arabs as it had been lived for centuries. During that time, he made many friends and provided rudimentary medical assistance to the indigenous population who lined up to meet him with their ailing relatives when they learned his tarada was coming to their village.

Thesiger provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Marsh Arabs. In addition to the detailed descriptions, he includes several pages of invaluable black and white photographs which help the reader visualize the people, structures, activities, and environment. His immersion in the culture is all the more impressive because he does not exhibit the prejudices of a technologically advanced culture against a people living under very primitive conditions. Nor does he idealize the Marsh Arabs as “noble savages.” He provides a balanced perspective, admiring many of their qualities while recognizing their failings.

The Marsh Arabs live under a brand of justice that can be harsh and frequently cause bloody family feuds since the aggrieved party has the right to demand blood money or kill the killer. Justice is usually dispensed by the tribal leader who settles disputes and metes out compensation and a punishment that is frequently violent and lacks compassion. But these are also a caring people, coming to the aid of one another in times of difficulty; caring for their disabled; and affording great respect to the mustarjil—a man born in the body of a woman. The mustarjil is accepted on equal terms as any male and is treated accordingly with no hint of stigmatization or marginalization.

With the 1958 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, Iraq descended into a period of chaos and lawlessness. The rise to power of Saddam Hussein presaged a reign of terror. Saddam drained much of the marshland, destroying a culture and an ecosystem that had remained virtually unchanged for many thousand years. Attempts are currently being made to restore the marshlands, but the way of life that thrived in this environment is probably lost forever.

Thesiger concludes his book with the words, “. . . another chapter in my life had closed.” But what has been closed is more than a chapter in the life of one man. What has been lost is the remnants of an ancient civilization—a devastating loss from which we can never fully recover.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sarah Perry

With pages housed in a stunning cover by Peter Dyer, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent generates a compelling sense of place peppered with elements of the gothic. Set in Victorian England in the 1890s, the novel’s atmosphere is replete with mysterious happenings and disappearances; villagers under the chokehold of superstition, paranoia, and hysteria; shapes that emerge in the dark and disappear behind a curtain of fog; and ostensible sightings of a mythical creature who presumably haunts the waters.

We follow the recently widowed Cora Seaborne as she moves from London to the Essex village of Aldwinter in search of the mythical Essex Serpent. In tow is her autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha. Cora is a free-spirited nature enthusiast who delights in traipsing around in her manly overcoat and muddy shoes, searching for fossils and hoping for a sighting of the elusive Essex Serpent. Her meeting with William Ransome, the local vicar, triggers lively debates about science versus religion, faith versus superstition, the natural world versus the spiritual realm—debates which defined the Victorian era. Their bantering back and forth is fraught with sexual tension.

The novel is peopled with interesting, fleshed-out characters with unique personalities. Martha, a feminist and vehement socialist, advocates for better housing for London’s poor. Dr. Luke Garrett is a brilliant surgeon with a hunchback and progressive ideas on medical procedures. His wealthy friend, George Spencer, becomes politically active on behalf of London’s poor in the hope of winning Martha’s favor. Stella, the saintly wife of William Ransome, is dying of consumption. Her illness takes a strange turn when she becomes obsessed with the color blue. And Katherine and Charles Ambrose, friends of Cora and the Ransomes, are a wealthy couple with government connections.

And then there are the children, portrayed with sympathy and compassion as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. Francis, Cora’s autistic son, collects and itemizes odds and ends, seldom communicates, and baffles adults, including his mother, with his behavior. The three Ransome children are Joanna, James, and John, each of whom has a unique personality. Joanna’s friend, Naomi, is a sensitive child who succumbs to a hysterical fit of uncontrollable laughter in the classroom. Her mysterious disappearance haunts her father with visions of his daughter being gobbled up by the Essex Serpent.

The love interests are many. William and Cora fall in love but remain as friends since William also loves his wife. Spencer loves Martha who is in love with Cora. Luke Garrett is also in love with Cora. Cora loves her son but is unable to connect with him. These love interests thread their way throughout the novel. Although they remain unfulfilled, they explore the different guises love can take, its power, its limitations, and its intersection with friendship.

Perry’s strength lies in creating a strong sense of place. Whether we are in the desperately poor districts of Victorian London with its filth and stench and overcrowded housing or whether we are in Aldwinter, with its bogs and marshes and muddy Blackwater River concealing goodness only knows what mysterious creature, Perry’s lyrical and descriptive prose is as immersive as the Aldwinter fog. Her ability to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of a particular location is impressive. Some of her descriptive passages are stunning. She breathes life into the landscape through personification:

Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.

Perry sprinkles the narrative with letters, diary entries, and the occasional bird’s eye view where we catch short glimpses of the characters in their different locations as if we were peering down on them from above. To say Sarah Perry is a gifted writer is an understatement. Her prose is exquisite; her narrative mesmerizing; her imagination captivating.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a charming novel of a simpler time in a rural English village. 

Marner, a skillful weaver, is wrongly accused of theft and feels compelled to leave his village. He moves to a neighboring village where he develops a reputation as a miser. Bereft of companionship and embittered by his lot in life, his only pleasure consists of stacking up his gold coins and watching them grow. But when he gets robbed of his coins and sinks to his lowest point, a young child enters his life. Marner adopts the little girl, showering her with love and affection.

The two form an inseparable bond based on mutual love and appreciation. The girl, Effie, recognizes the role Marner played in saving her from an orphanage and workhouse; Marner recognizes the role she played in saving him from living the rest of his days as a miserly recluse. He emerges as a sympathetic character who has been redeemed by giving and receiving love. There are twists and turns in the novel, most notably those involving the girl’s real father and his connection with the thief who robbed Marner.

Eliot skillfully captures the nature of rural life in England. Her use of vernacular to portray character is very effective. The characters come alive with their quibbling and bantering back and forth. The rural population with its simplicity, honesty, and genuine goodness is contrasted with the upper classes, some of whom are not above lying, deception, and thievery. Even though her characters are flawed, Eliot paints them with a tender brush.

Eliot clearly delineates class divisions, but she does it with compassion, humor, and irony. Her intrusions into the narrative where she comments on characters or events are done with an astute lens into the foibles of human nature. Her exploration of what motivates humans to behave the way they do is rich with insight. The novel illustrates the importance of belonging to a community from which one can garner support, friendship, and guidance. It also illustrates the truism that happiness does not come from wealth but from the bonds we form with one another.

A simple novel, told with honesty, grace, and eloquence. Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review