A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon****

notoriousrbgIf I were to review the subject of this memoir rather than the book itself, it would be a slam-dunk five star rating. As it is, I can still recommend Carmon’s brief but potent biography as the best that has been published about this fascinating, passionate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. I have no doubt many more will follow, and it’s possible I will read every one of them. As it stands, this is a rare instance in which I turned my back on my pile of free galleys long enough to ferret this gem out at the Seattle Public Library, because I just had to read it. You should too.

I’m an old school feminist from the seventies, but Ginsberg is one from the fifties. How is that even possible? Imagine the courage it would take to step forward at a time when no women’s movement even existed! She sued Rutgers University for equal pay and won. Later, she was the first female law professor at Columbia University, and she sued them for equal pay too. She volunteered as an attorney for the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union, represented custodians in a class action suit, and later, when the Free Speech Movement on campuses in the 1960s began to warm up, she was already red hot and ready to go.

The best parts of Carmon’s memoir are the primary documents, because we get to see RBG’s own words. Ginsburg was made a federal appeals judge by President Jimmy Carter and moved to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. She’s issued a number of tremendously eloquent decisions, and has chosen to read her dissent aloud, a thing not usually done, a record-breaking five times at the time this book was written. The lacy-looking necklace that fans out on all sides of her neck is her dissent collar, and so those that hear the Court deliver its decision can see exactly where Justice Ginsberg stands as soon as they see what she is wearing.

At times such as these, in which a woman in Indiana was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for having an abortion [reference mine], it gives women hope to know that there is a fighter on the Supreme Court who’s looking out for our interests. It doesn’t mean that women can step away from this political battle, but it’s a thing that encourages us and lends us fortitude.

In January, it is rumored that Ginsberg will release her own memoir, one that relies heavily on her court decisions. Likely this will be an even better memoir than this one. For now though, this uplifting, funny, well-documented memoir is as good as it gets. Go get it.

Blanche Cleans Up, by Barbara Neely ****

blanchecleansupBlanche Cleans Up, which is #3 in the Blanche White mystery series, is more than a murder mystery, as the numerous word plays in the title imply. This is a smart, funny-yet-serious series, and I am thrilled to be able to review another one for Net Galley and Brash Books, who provided me with a DRC. This title was released at the beginning of May, and so you ought to be able to buy it right now.

Blanche is a single African-American woman who chooses to do domestic work so that she can select her employers. She is good at her work, and so anybody she doesn’t like, doesn’t get to hire her. But in this episode, she has been roped into a job she otherwise would not do, at the behest of a family member. Inez, their usual cook and head housekeeper, is in desperate need of a vacation, and Inez can’t go unless she can guarantee a good substitute to take her place. Blanche, who sometimes has an acid tongue but also a heart of purest marshmallow, caves in and agrees to step in for a week. Of course, after all hell breaks loose, Inez is gone for at least two weeks. Who wouldn’t be, under the circumstances?

Neely is a seriously brainy writer. Meta-meta-meta-cognition is all over the place in Blanche’s internal narratives. It’s an approachable way to talk about social issues, primarily race, but also about sexism, the rights of gay and lesbian people, and of course, about class. So if you are socially conservative…if you are conservative, why are you reading my review at all? What are you thinking? Are you new here? Get out get out get out. Shoo! Scoot. Skedaddle.

Ah. I feel better now. Gave me quite a turn. Anyway, those who are looking for a mystery because their brain is tired and they just want a cozy read—and I do this myself from time to time, nothing wrong with it—will need a different book, because Blanche books are really about social issues, and the mystery is merely an approachable forum with which to address them. Not that pacing, characterization, and story arc are missing; far from it! I was riveted from the seventy percent mark and had to finish it. It’s a solid story, not literary fiction, but a good mystery. But if you are looking for a good story and think you will just ignore the issues under discussion, you are mistaken, because they are so strongly interwoven here that it’s impossible to just read it for the mystery aspect.

I should also mention that the intended audience appears to be Black folk and other people of color. That doesn’t mean Caucasians can’t enjoy it, and it may be a good lesson in empathy, especially if you haven’t done a lot of introspection. At times, Neely echoes WEB DuBois on the color line; in the elite white folks’ household, a young Black man who was close to the child in residence was welcome through the front door…until.

Neely weaves a lot of plot points and a lot of issues into one deft tale. It’s really well crafted. I especially enjoyed the development of Blanche’s adopted son (nephew whose mother is dead) along with neighborhood activist Aminata. And I liked what she did with her teenage relative who developed a serious problem.

When you finish the book, you almost have to have a heart and mind that is a little more open to types of people you might have unthinkingly dismissed before. There’s really nothing else like it. How often do you get the opportunity to improve yourself and have fun at the same time? Do it!