Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards*****

Edwards is the author of This I Know, and here, once again, she creates a powerful story based on a youthful yearning for identity. My thanks go to the author and her publicist for the printed galley, and to Kensington and Net Galley for the digital copy.  It will be available May 28, 2019.

Our setting is a small commune in California in the early 1970s. Our protagonist, Clover Blue, sleeps in a tree house with some of the other commune members. There’s no running water or electricity, but we don’t miss what we don’t have, and California has a mild climate. Though decisions are made collectively, with younger and older residents each having a vote, Goji is the spiritual leader of the group. In place of formal education, young commune members study with him. Blue can read as well as other children his age, and he knows more about nature than most would because it’s part of his everyday experience. He doesn’t remember living anywhere else; his life is happy, and his bonds with his communal family are strong ones.

But everyone wants to know their origins, and Blue is no different. As puberty approaches, he begins to ask questions. He gains the sense that older members know things they won’t tell him, and it heightens his desire to find out. Goji promises him that he will be told when he turns twelve, but his twelfth birthday comes and goes, and still Goji evades his queries.

And so the story darkens just a bit as Blue undertakes research on his own. He has a hunch as to who his biological parents might be, and despite the communal culture that regards every older person as the mother or father of every younger person, he wants the particulars and is determined to get them. The things he learns are unsettling and produce further questions.

A large part of the problem the communal elders face is that the State of California does not recognize the commune, and the living conditions and educational process used there are not legally viable. Because of these things, Goji discourages interaction with the outside world, and sometimes essential services—such as medical care—are given short shrift because of the risks they pose. Instead, naturopathic remedies are used, often to good result.

Edwards builds resonant characters, and I believe Blue, the sometimes-mysterious Goji, and Harmony, the member of the commune that is closest to Blue. There is enough ambiguity within each of them to prevent them from becoming caricatures; everyone holds various qualities within them, none being wholly benign or malevolent. The way that we judge these characters isn’t built upon their ability to do everything well, but in how they deal with their mistakes when they make them. In addition, some writers of historical fiction—which technically this isn’t, but it has that vibe—fall into the trap of establishing time and place through the cheap shortcut of pop cultural references and well known historical events. Edwards doesn’t do that, but she does use the speech of the time period so effectively that at times, I feel transported back to my own adolescence. There are aspects of the period I’d forgotten entirely that surprise and delight me; if there are errors, I don’t see them.

Ultimately, the story takes a turn that harks back (somewhat) to George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in that while everyone at the commune is said to be equal, some are “more equal than others.” Cracks in the foundation of their once-idyllic lives form, and we see who has strength of character, and who is lacking.

If I could change anything, I would make the ending less rushed, and I’d also urge the author to be less afraid of letting the ugly parts play themselves out as they most likely would in real life. In this novel and her last, it seems like the tragic aspects that occur near or at the climax are a hot stove, and we have to move away from them quickly. I’d like to see Edwards let the stove burn a little more.

 I do recommend this book to you. In fact, it may be a five star read, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate it without comparing it to what the author wrote earlier, and this made the five star standard difficult to achieve here. Those that love historical fiction should get it and read it.

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.

What Women Want, by Deborah L. Rhode *****

What Women Want

Yes, thank you, I am a feminist. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision around the Hobby Lobby’s so-called “right” to deny its female employees the contraception of their choice via their health insurance, Rhode’s manifesto could not be more timely. The book is not only right on the money politically, but it is scholarly, accessible, and written by a woman whose credentials cannot be questioned. Rhode is a Stanford law professor who clerked for Thurgood Marshall. She founded the school’s course on gender, but still sees plenty of room for improvement…everywhere. She’s right. Thanks to Net Galley for promoting this important book.

Rhode points out that in spite of the all-too-common mistaken perception that gender bias is a thing of the past, women constitute less than one half percent of the content in the average history textbook. Furthermore:

In virtually every major dimension of social status, financial

well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than

men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive

rights are by no means secure.

Women are still primarily responsible for child care, and they are still penalized for this on the job. Abortion providers are rare due to local laws and increased insurance premiums, courtesy of virtually unfettered terrorism against women’s health clinics. Wealthy women will always be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy because they can travel, but the poor, who often have the most urgent need to exercise this choice, are stuck if they can’t get to a county or state where the service is available, and pay for attendant travel costs associated with other red-tape hurdles such as waiting periods.

The USA has the second-highest rate of reported rape in the world, and a quarter of all women experience violence from their intimate partner; a fifth are raped or experience attempted rape.

Are you listening?

Rhode carefully delineates every problem faced by women in the USA today, and she argues, blow by blow, citation by citation, what is needed. Women should be organizing. We aren’t, at least not in the numbers that we need to in order to bring about social change. In fact, this reviewer would suggest that we are losing ground, and it is because so many of us don’t show up to carry a sign, wear an armband, or carry a bullhorn.

The only weak place in Rhode’s release, if there is one, has to do with women of color. Her analysis there is shallow. However, the other sections apply to all women, regardless of color or ethnicity. We all need respect in the workplace and parity with our male coworkers or colleagues in pay and advancement. We all need affordable–if not free–childcare. We all need reproductive freedom that is between ourselves and our doctors. And we all need to be able to speak up and be perceived as “assertive” rather than “aggressive”. We are not there yet.

This reviewer has twice marched in Washington DC for women’s right to reproductive freedom, and cannot believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is dead. What’s that about?

If you are female or care about someone who is, you should get this book. Rhode is crystal clear and absolutely correct; if women cannot be equal now, then when?