Tag Archives: Gender inequality

All That Is by James Salter

All That IsWhat began as gorgeous elegiac memory about misplaced courage and final hope as World War II comes to an end in the Pacific, devolves into a middle-aged man’s tedious reflections about his search for meaningful connections, especially with women, as he recalls his privileged life over too many decades.

While the writing never wavers from immaculate and restrained (given even more gravitas by narrator Joe Barrett’s controlled, genteel recitation, if you choose to go audible), disappointments can’t be ignored; for all of James Salter’s oft-repeated ‘writer’s writer’ accolades and awards, stripped down to pure storytelling, All That Is is shockingly racist and interminably sexist. More fair warning: spoilers ahead.

Philip Bowman is the quintessentially elegant, entitled (white male) protagonist; his name encapsulates his character exactly – a philandering, ‘beau’ man. He returns home to his divorced mother in New Jersey after his Navy service, talks himself into Harvard after an initial rejection, settles into a New York City job with a small publishing house, and embarks on his lifelong career as an editor. His only marriage to a woman so unlike himself ends quickly, albeit not before he has his first affair with, of course, a married woman. He reads, he meets writers, he has many drinks in glamorous places. His bed partners change with regularity, until he’s finally ready to go off to Venice with his latest conquest by book’s end. Right.

The shrill alarms begin with lurid details about a southern gentleman’s proclivities for a teenaged African American maid, so clearly delineated as a power deal as he lines up silver dollars along her naked body as both aphrodisiac and payment. For all his charming polish, Bowman’s own skeeze factor surfaces when a wasp stings his almost-stepdaughter Anet’s nubile teenaged backside, which he attends to with a cold washcloth while wishing for more. Forty pages later, he meets Anet on a Manhattan street as a young adult, manages to take her home, dopes her up, and you can guess the predictable rest. What’s most disturbing is that he entices her to Paris, only to abandon her in their hotel room without warning, an act that can only be construed as cowardly, immature revenge for Anet’s mother’s betrayal years before – a disposable daughter of a replaceable mother. But no worries – Salter makes sure his beautiful man never experiences a shortage of willing women.

Absent from publishing for over three decades, Salter quickly made headlines while All That Is hit best-of, most talked-about, capitalized-Important lists. Perhaps disguised in such impeccable prose, readers are unwilling to judge the actual narrative; perhaps the characters are so doused in enviable entitlement as to be above general judgment. Misguided, too, by such public adoration, I managed to survive all 10-plus hours (or 300 pages if you choose the book). I finished with lesson learned (once again): squelch the curiosity and skip the inflated bestsellers. Bowman, ironically, would probably have told you the same.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Maya Rosewood

Twin NightsIn order to fully enjoy this manga, you first need to read its prequel, Princess Knight (in two volumes in English translation). Come back when you’re finished … this will wait.

For those of you already familiar with the gender-bender tale of the cross-dressing Princess, welcome back to Silverland where now-Queen Sapphire has given birth to twins Daisy (the boy) and Violetta (the girl). Before even their first day has passed, the powers-that-be are already arguing over which royal will be the throne’s successor. With the “entire realm … split into supporters of the Prince versus the Princess,” King Franz realizes, “Oh, right! At times like this I should ask God for a revelation.”

Instead of God, the adorable angel Tink returns earthward: “God is currently away on business, so I came here in his stead.” His decision via bow toss points to Prince Daisy as the noble heir. In a jealous fury, Princess Violetta’s support team kidnap the sleeping baby boy and arrange for him to die out in the wild woods, Snow White-style. An especially maternal deer (who’s granted the ability to become a human by day – she needs hands, after all, to provide proper baby care) rescues the sweet prince and raises him to adulthood.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, the King and Queen dare not reveal their tragic loss to their trusting subjects, and instead raise Princess Violetta as both Prince and Princess. Cross-dressing privileges and consequences both ensue. Gypsies, hunts, henchmen, and yet another pair of royal twins are all necessary to eventually reunite the royal family …

Whimsy aside, just as he questioned in Princess Knight, the legendary Osamu Tezuka doesn’t shy away from challenging subjects here, from gender politics, equality and equity, class issues, to questions of identity, definitions of morality, and more. Even as a half-century has passed since its original Japanese debut, Tezuka’s sociopolitical concerns remain – for better or for worse – as timely as ever.

Serious, yes, but Tezuka never forgets he’s in the entertainment business: he’s still laughing throughout, especially at himself. From inserting his own shocked image – “Why the hell is Osamu Tezuka hidin’ out here?” a character demands in the midst of a ferocious battle – to constantly plugging the joys of manga at any opportunity he gets – hiding out reading comics, “cool[ing] off” with comics, and admiring beautifully unblemished hands could only belong to a comic artist. From silly to somber in a single panel, Tezuka proves yet again why he’ll always be the undisputed godfather of manga.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Japanese, ..Young Adult Readers, ..Adult Readers, .Translation

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine, translated by Fatima Sharafeddine

ServantAt 15, Faten is uprooted from her village life to become a live-in servant to a wealthy family in Beirut, where violence from the ongoing Lebanese Civil War seems neverending. Her father’s decision to pull her out of school, to indenture her away from all that is familiar, is final; even Faten’s mother cannot undo his harsh verdict. For two years, Faten glimpses only her father once a month when he comes to Beirut to pick up her tiny salary. Her only city friend is an immigrant from Sierra Leone who also works as a servant in the same building, whom she is allowed to visit for a few hours on Sundays.

In spite of missing two years of high school, Faten decides  she must figure out a way to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse. She realizes that education is her only chance to escape a lifetime of servitude. The young man who lives in the next building, who she sees everyday from the balcony, might just be the outside help she needs. With the passing of a single note, she allows herself to hope for a different future.

Lebanese-born, peripatetically-domiciled picture book author Fatima Sharafeddine, twice nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (regarded as the international children’s book prize with a 5 million Swedish krona/$770,000 payout!), writes her first-ever title for young adults; she also translates her own work from Arabic to English.

While her focus in Servant is on Faten whose socioeconomic status clearly puts her at a disadvantage, Sharafeddine also draws compelling attention to the plight of girls and young women overall, regardless of a family’s net worth. In spite of her fancy school, designer clothes, and many friends, May, the older daughter in Faten’s employer’s family, lives in a gilded cage, on regular display for the perfect suitor who will ensure her future as a wife and mother before she has even finished her teenage years. In this girls’ world, privilege and poverty are not as contradictory as they might seem …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010, 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Lebanese

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

House GirlGive me a story with two narratives interwoven through nonlinear timelines and, usually, I’ll be one committed reader. The House Girl opens in 1852 rural Virginia with a teenage slave girl named Josephine, then fast forwards in the next chapter to Lina, an ambitious attorney in 2004 New York City. Josephine, the primary caretaker to her dying mistress, plots her escape. Lina, 150 years later, searches for a perfect plaintiff to represent a would-be landmark case seeking substantial reparations for descendants of American slaves. To decipher the (non-familial – nope, not that easy!) relationship between the two disparate characters requires almost 400 pages (or, if you go audible, nearly 15 hours) through a labyrinth of well-guarded secrets, lost identities, and unjust history.

Sounds promising, right? Alas, the dual stories often felt like dueling narratives, wavering between high-brow social treatise and soap opera-like antics (including even a dead mother who comes back to life!). Curiosity kept me reading, yes … but finishing got me thinking …

Split narratives aside, here’s my pressing dilemma: Because I chose to listen to Bahni Turpin whose narration is distinctly African American, I (wrongfully) assumed Lina was African American. In Google-ing author Tara Conklin‘s website to link here, I found an NPR interview that questions Conklin about “… whether she worried about writing a novel about slavery with mostly white characters,” which caused substantial surprise. That Conklin herself is seemingly white (based on her author photo), that “‘You’re not black enough’” is a pivotal line in the novel, that realizing only after reading a book about slavery that it has a single African American main character … well, I confess that context cannot be ignored.

The act of claiming someone else’s story – represented here by canvases of haunting portraits, both historical (Josephine’s) and contemporary (Lina’s father’s paintings of her absent mother) – looms large throughout these pages. How disturbingly ironic that the novel itself seems to echo that sense of appropriation: The House Girl is essentially a white author’s story of an African American slave girl told mostly through white characters. The novel’s details quickly pale as I find I myself challenged (again) to ponder – in our supposedly post-racial 21st-century society, just how much do historic ‘black’ and ‘white’ labels matter … literally?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Nonethnic-specific

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrated by Rebecca Guay

Bad GirlsIf beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then perhaps bad behavior might be, too. “In this book we are taking a look back through history at all manner of famous female felons,” write mother/daughter author-team Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple (who, between them, have hundreds and hundreds of titles). From as far back as 110 BCE to the 20th century, Bad Girls includes 26 women who have quite the historical rap sheet. But were they all really that bad? “Every crime – no matter how heinous – comes with its own set of circumstances, aggravating and mitigating, which can tip the scales of guilt. And views change.”

Salome, she of the dance of the seven veils who was rewarded with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, might have been just 10 or 11 (!!) and easily manipulated by the adults around her. Bloody Mary was a highly educated, sought-after Princess who was declared suddenly illegitimate, then banished at the whim of her own philandering father King Henry VIII. The slave Tituba, who only did her young charges’ bidding, could only escape hanging if she confessed to being a witch. Madame Alexe Popova helped desperate wives off their cruel husbands – over 300 of those bad boys. Typhoid Mary was never ill herself, but she was a typhoid carrier who wouldn’t let the doctors fix her infection-ridden gallbladder, even for free … if you were healthy, would you submit to the knife?

Decades, centuries, millenia later, how might these women be judged now? “As our world changes, so does our definition of bad,” Yolen and Stemple remind us. “[Y]ou will have to decide for yourself if they were really bad, not so bad, or somewhere in the middle. And perhaps you will see that even the baddest of bad girls may have had a good reason for what she did.”

Admittedly a page-turner – like a mangled train wreck, you can’t look away, except to flip the page – Bad Girls is a unique hybrid of short biographies with a graphic twist: each chapter ends with a graphic novel/manga-style conversation (hurray for Rebecca Guay‘s multi-varied ease in changing styles) between mother and daughter, debating the good, bad, and the often ugly circumstances. Their exchanges are cutesy, off-the-cuff, albeit with a few too many predictable quips – “The Tudors were a nasty bunch. Always sneaking and scheming” gets the expected reply, “Rather like modern politicians.” Yolen seems to be the older, wiser voice while Stemple is quick with her 21st-century judgments of “icky” and apparently more concerned about her wardrobe (her shoe-obsession – misplaced attempt at humor? – seems totally out-of-place). That said, let the bad girls speak for themselves. Read at your own risk … then be sure to decide for yourself.

Tidbit: Younger readers might better enjoy The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, a thus-far seven-title collection featuring women who lived by their own rules (the series and Bad Girls have Cleopatra and (Bloody) Mary Tudor in common). Older readers should definitely check out this TEDxVancouver talk, “The Sociology of Gossip,” about what gossip – especially about supposedly badly-behaved women – says about our so-called modern society. It’s an eye-, ear-, and brain-opener!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff

Delicate Edible BirdsIf the name Lauren Groff sounds familiar, that might be because her latest title, Arcadia, appears on oh-so-many Best-of-2012 lists. I admit I haven’t yet read Arcadia (it’s high in my ‘must-read’ pile), but if I have the option among an author’s titles, short stories are usually my first choice.

Just as I clicked ‘on’ knowing nothing more than the lauded reputation associated with Groff’s name, I hope not to dampen anyone else’s eyebrow-raising, shudder-inducing surprise factor. That means you might want to stop here, or you’ll have to risk even the bare minimum being too much …

In “Lucky Chow Fun,” the only girl swimmer on the high school team watches as the discovery of a human trafficking operation destroys the idyllic haze that protected her small town. Swimming transforms the legendary real-life 12th-century lovers, Abelard and Heloise, into 20th-century “L. DeBard and Aliette,” an Olympian and his teenaged wheelchair-bound protegé. In “Majorette,” the oldest daughter in a dysfunctional family finally finds comfort, stability, and lasting happiness. Dysfunction ceaselessly controls the relationship between two intimate friends in “Blythe.” Always maintaining distance, the ex-pat wives bear witness to the slow destruction of “The Wife of the Dictator.”

A professional storyteller becomes the wife of a childhood friend in “Watershed,” only to have her narrative cut short. In “Sir Fleeting,” a Midwestern farm girl reinvents her own personal narrative to eventually match, even surpass, that of the glamorous playboy who appears in and out of her life. In “Fugue” – so aptly named as the most intricate story in the collection – disintegrating relationships overlap and overpower. And, in “Delicate Edible Birds,” again, the lone woman among men, this time in a pack of war correspondents during World War II, falls prey to inhumanity.

All nine stories later, I know I chose remarkably well! [Stuck in the ears – narrated by Susan Eriksen who's amply capable of multiple nuanced voices – the collection makes for mesmerizing running/walking/laundry-folding company; you'll just keep going in order to listen!] From absolving to traitorous, from desperate to destructive, each story is a complete narrative to absorb, appreciate, and ultimately admire. Now, Arcadia, here I come!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Nonethnic-specific

Author Interview: Pauline A. Chen

Red ChamberA couple of days after filing my feature on Pauline A. Chen, I got on the phone to ask her all the questions I couldn’t find answers to out there in the virtual world of google-ing.

True confession moment: I admit I was a wee bit intimidated as the land lines connected us between DC and Cleveland – just what sort of person takes on the most canonical text in Chinese literary history (The Dream of the Red Chamber) and makes it her own (The Red Chamber)? I actually expected a Glenn Close/Cruella de Vil sort of megalomaniacal voice to pick up. Lucky for me, I could put that overactive imagination away, because really, as gutsy as her literary move has been, she’s not at all the hardened character I had dreamt up. Always good to start an interview with a sigh of relief.

Let’s begin with the basics: I understand you spoke rudimentary Chinese as a child because your parents didn’t want their native language to impede their children’s English proficiency. So when and how did you learn Chinese? Which dialect? And are you fluent now?
I took beginning Mandarin in college [Harvard], but the Chinese language program was just getting started at the time, so the classes were not terribly challenging. After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and that’s when my proficiency really improved, just because I was living in a Chinese-speaking environment. One of my English students in Taiwan introduced me to 9th-century Tang poetry, which I fell in love with – until then I had never imagined that such a developed and sophisticated literary tradition even existed in China.

I came back to the U.S. and went straight to law school, but on the side, I took classes in classical Chinese language and literature. By the time I finished law school, I had realized working over the summers at law firms that I did not want to be an attorney. I went straight into a PhD program in East Asian Studies, and that’s when I began to study Chinese literature in earnest.

I’m pretty fluent in Mandarin, but my training in graduate school focused on reading pre-modern texts – mostly poetry from the fourth century to the ninth century – so I would say I’m stronger in classical Chinese. I can understand quite a bit of Taiwanese, but my attempts to speak it are usually treated with frank derision by native speakers.

You were so certain going into college that you wanted to be a writer. Where did that determination come from?
For as long as I can remember, I liked to write; I had an impulse to make up stories. And reading always gave me such tremendous pleasure. But really, I had no idea what it meant to be writer. Growing up, I never revised anything I wrote, or asked another person for feedback. I just had this dream as a child, but had no comprehension that this was something I had to work towards.

And then during your four years at college, your writerly ambitions just disappeared. How? Why?
The first reason was that at Harvard, students have to apply to get into creative writing courses, and I got into poetry, not fiction. I struggled in the poetry because then, as now, I was fascinated by poetry in other languages – I studied Latin poetry back then – but really didn’t know the English poetic tradition very well. The deeper reason was that I just didn’t know how or what to write. As a teenager I had loved Jane Austen, but at college I started to realize that emulating her style and subject matter would have been faintly ridiculous, and that I needed to find a way to incorporate my own perspective and experience into what I wrote. Years later, when I read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, I understood that this was what he had experienced when he tried to write like a worldly, Evelyn Waugh-like sophisticate, while trying to suppress his own experience in a peasant family on colonial Trinidad. I also was too undeveloped, too uncomfortable with my own background to use it as a platform from which to write.[... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Pauline A. Chen,” Bloom, February 20, 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen + Author Profile

Red ChamberWhen the teenaged Pauline Chen arrived in Harvard Yard, her intention was to become a writer. The American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents, she grew up amidst Long Island’s endless strip malls and was determined – she wrote in July 2012 at Tribute Books – to shed her “provincial” upbringing. By the time Chen graduated in 1986, she had reinvented herself as an “international sophisticate” whose literary preferences had “distinctly European sensibilities: cigarettes and grappa at Parisian cafés; country dances and muslin frocks in a Derbyshire ballroom.” Her undergraduate degree was earned in Classics, and belied a particular interest in Latin poetry.

During her four years in Cambridge, she shed her “frizzy perm and Long Guyland accent,” but gone, too, by the time she graduated, were her authorly ambitions: “… I stopped feeling that I had anything to say. My writing dried up; I did not understand that the experiences which made me nervous and uncomfortable, which I was quick to bury, also made me creative.”

Although she didn’t create, she also didn’t stray too far from the page. After Harvard, she went to Yale Law School and got her JD. She went south to Princeton where she finished a PhD in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on reading pre-modern Chinese poetry from the fourth to ninth century in original classical Chinese. She had stopovers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she honed the rudimentary Mandarin of her childhood into fluency, before settling in “most alien of all” – Ohio – to become a professor of Chinese language and literature, squarely on the tenure track. She got married. She had a child.

And then she got cancer.

Diagnosed with a rare, highly aggressive ovarian cancer in 2001 just weeks after giving birth to her son, Chen returned to some of the comforts of her childhood when her mother moved from New York to Ohio, to take over Chen’s family’s care. Chen’s mother… mothered: she cooked, cleaned, and cooed over her newborn grandson. When the chemo erased Chen’s appetite, her mother’s rice was sometimes her only nourishment. When her baby cried, only his grandmother could comfort him. When Chen required more advanced treatment in another state, Chen’s mother took full charge, following her daughter with her grandson, setting up a new apartment, and smoothly continuing her patient care.

Chen’s mother’s “generosity and talents … enabled [her] to survive,” Chen wrote at Goodreads in September 2012. Before her cancer, Chen’s focus was honed on her demanding academic career and the financial independence it offered, which she thought set her far apart from her traditional mother who had arrived in the U.S. to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology but chose to stay home after her eldest was born with a congenital defect (from which she eventually recovered). Not until her youngest of three children entered school did she get her pharmacist’s license, with which she worked in hospitals for the next 30 years. Growing up, Chen internalized the contempt with which her engineering professor father treated her mother: “I had always failed to give her credit for her talents, for the very reason that she had chosen to devote them to the service of those she loved, rather than to the professional realm.” Only as an adult – and a cancer patient relying on her mother’s unconditional support – did she recognize the “idyllic period of our childhood”: “For years I deplored my childhood circumstances as narrow. In fact my parents had lived on two continents and spoke three languages. All along the narrowness had been in my own vision—and I had had to travel to the ends of the earth in order to see the place that I had come from.” [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Pauline A. Chen and The Red Chamber: ” … to finish the story for myself,” Bloom, February 18, 2013

Tidbit: Click here for my review of The Red Chamber, originally published in Library Journal. Click here for my review of Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas in BookDragon. And click here for a follow-up Q&A with Chen.

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American, Taiwanese American

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa ParksAlready designated “definitive political biography” on its back cover, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Brooklyn College political science professor Jeanne Theoharis will reside in my personal reading history as the most difficult book I’ve ever reviewed. Never before – and hopefully never again – have I faced such a vast divide between significant content and frustrating execution. As the most exhaustively researched biography thus far on Rosa Parks, Theoharis’ new title is inarguably an essential addition to any library or classroom, and yet readers will need serious patience to sift through tedious repetition, fragmented chronology, and countless “might have/could have” assumptions to reach the final page.

Fable, myth, caricature are not words historically linked to Rosa Parks, who is publicly remembered as the quiet, tired seamstress whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus sparked the U.S. civil rights movement. When she died at 92 in 2005, Parks became the first woman and second African American to have her body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda; 40,000 – including President and Mrs. George W. Bush – bore witness, with additional mourners paying tribute at overflowing memorials held in Montgomery, and Detroit, where Parks spent more than half of her life.

“[T]he woman who emerged in the public tribute bore only a fuzzy resemblance to Rosa Louise Parks,” Theoharis proves. “[R]epeatedly defined by one solitary act on the bus,” Theoharis insists Parks was “stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice.” Instead, “the public spectacle provided an opportunity for the nation to lay rest a national heroine and its own history of racism.” In other words: 50 years earlier, this tired woman couldn’t sit on a bus, but look where she’s lying now.

Theoharis “was captivated and then horrified by the national spectacle made of her death.” She gave a talk about “its caricature of [Parks] and, by extension, its misrepresentation of the civil rights movement,” which she was asked to turn into an article: “It became clear how little we actually knew about Rosa Parks.” Even Rosa Parks: A Life, the biography by lauded historian Douglas Brinkley, “is “pocket-sized, un-footnoted,” while the autobiography Parks wrote with Jim Haskins, Rosa Parks: My Story, is targeted for young adult readers. “[T]he lack of scholarly monograph on Parks,” Theoharis observes, “is notable.”

More than a personal biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Theoharis uses the honorific Mrs. to add “a degree of dignity, distance, and formality to mark that she is not fully ours as a nation to appropriate”) is a political reclamation of Parks’ almost-70 years of activism. As the grandchild of slaves, Parks knew “[f]rom an early age, … ‘we were not free.’” Pushed by her mother, a teacher, towards an education, “her discovery of black history in high school was transformative.” Family responsibilities kept Parks from finishing 11th grade; she wanted to be nurse or social worker, never a teacher after the “’humiliation and intimidation’” she watched her mother endure. Her husband Raymond Parks was “’the first real activist I ever met.’”

Her acts of resistance began small and early – she refused to drink from segregated water fountains – then public and even life-threatening – she registered to vote and assisted others “despite enormous poll taxes and the unfair registration tests.” She was Montgomery’s NAACP secretary, long aligned with controversial activist E.D. Nixon; she experienced interracial leadership training and race equality at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. [... click here for more]

Review: Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2013

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat, translated by Denys Johnson-Davis

Given the monumental (continuous) changes post-Arab Spring, my recent (ongoing) search for women’s voices before and after led me to an unusual writer who defies many expectations of what it means to be internationally literary: Alifa Rifaat lives and works in a traditional Egyptian Muslim society (this collection was first published in English translation almost three decades ago), she does not have a university education (her family married her off instead), she speaks a single language which means her reading is restricted to literature available only in Arabic, and the only time she has left her provincial Egyptian life is for religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

“At first consideration this would appear an uncompromising background for a writer of fiction,” notes her translator Denys Johnson-Davies (the notable nonagenarian and revered translator of Nobel-ist Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmud Darwish, Tayed Salih, and many more), “yet it is these very limitations that have imposed upon her writing its freshness and actuality. Most of her stories express, implicitly rather than explicitly, a revolt against many of the norms and attitudes, particularly those related to woman and her place in society.” Rifaat’s protests are less political than they are just simply human: men should behave kindly towards women – “as enjoined by the Qur’an” – and when they don’t, women turn to “contempt and rebellion.”

In the titular “Distant View of a Minaret,” a woman long denied fulfillment in marriage surprises herself by calmly pouring herself a cup of coffee immediately after her husband’s death. In “An Incident in the Ghobashi Household,” a woman figures out to save her daughter and therefore her family. In “Badriyya and Her Husband,” a lonely wife whose husband returns from prison, is proverbially “the last to know” but she finally contemplates how she will “find the strength not to open the door to him.” In “My World of the Unknown,” a woman embarks on a mysterious affair that may or may not be real, but more importantly provides her great joy and pleasure. In “The Flat on Nakshabandi Street,” an elderly maiden aunt who lives with her bachelor nephew watches life go by (and plots her daily machinations) from her window seat overlooking the street below.

The majority of Rifaat’s 15 short stories here underline how difficult basic consideration between the sexes seems to be. In her immediate world tightly circumscribed by traditional, religious, and societal expectations, a sense of resigned regret undeniably looms, but lest you dismiss the Rifaat’s writing as bleak and disheartening, be assured that many of the women here find their own ways of surviving, and even thriving.

Tidbit: What a surprise to find the eminent Denys Johnson-Davis on BookDragon (!) as the author of a children’s book, Goha the Wise Fool. Clearly I don’t even know my own content, but Johnson-Davis’ creativity sure is prodigious!

Readers: Adult

Published: 1983, 1985 (United Kingdom), 1987 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Egyptian