A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

According to Kate, by Chris Enss***

Kate Elder, better known as Big Nose Kate, was a colorful character in the mercurial Wild West. Together with her paramour—possibly her husband—Doc Holliday, she shot, swindled and burned her way through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the American Southwest. My thanks go to Net Galley and Two Dot Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Enss is a capable writer, and I enjoy seeing women about whom little has been written brought to the foreground. Enss amassed a fair amount of material on her subject, but some of it was contradictory, and the greatest contradictor of all was Kate herself, who decided to tell her own life story when she was too old to recall everything properly. Enss tells the reader in the title and introduction that she is telling Kate’s story from the subject’s point of view, and she adds numerous footnotes explaining  conflicting information throughout the narrative.

I read things I had never known before about this time and place, and general historical knowledge is where Enss shines best. For example, a ‘soiled dove’ was allowed to own real estate, whereas married women of the time were not. There were a number of financial advantages to owning a house of ill repute. Kate grew up in a middle class household and was not without choices, but she didn’t care to be married off in the way her family had proposed. In the end she was both a shrewd businesswoman and an adrenaline junkie, one that made a point of having at least one loaded gun handy when a situation called for it. I enjoyed reading about it.

Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting information and the gaps in the story are numerous. Anytime I start seeing the words “might,” “must have, “ “likely” and so forth, I pull back from the narrative. I can’t get lost in a story when I have to mentally filter the things that are known to have happened from the things nobody knows for sure.  I think Enss has done as good a job as could be done with the documentation available, but Kate is a hard nut to crack.

What I would love to see is historical fiction written with Kate as the protagonist, viewed through the eyes of a feminist writer such as Enss. With historical fiction one can freely fill in the gaps, provide dialogue, and make notes at the end of the story letting the reader know what she has invented or changed.

Those with a special interest may want to read this biography, but I see it largely as a niche read.

Best Debut Fiction of 2019: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis

Interestingly, my favorite as well as two honorable mentions share a social justice component.

Honorable Mentions:

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2019/04/13/miracle-creek-by-angie-kim/

Best Poetry 2019: A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, by Damaris B. Hill*****

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Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.