Isabel Allende has long been a guiding light for women, immigrants, and social justice activists. She is an old woman now, and her wisdom and word smithery have only grown deeper and wider. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
There are four sections to this compact memoir, and overall, it is a memoir of Allende’s feminist philosophy and experiences. She also describes the trajectory of the feminist movement and the gains that have been made. One of Allende’s most agreeable attributes is her candor, and she discusses her relationships with the men she has married with disarming frankness and humor. Her voice is like nobody else’s.
Generally speaking, I find it annoying when an author uses space in the book they’ve sold us to advertise a product or beg for funds, nonprofit or not; however, this time I wanted to stand up and cheer! Allende’s foundation exists to support women’s reproductive choices, and that includes abortion. Out of all the years I’ve blogged, over one thousand reviews I’ve scribed, and I have never seen abortion rights advocated so forcefully. I bow in admiration.
If I could have something more from this iconic writer, it would be an overall autobiography. She has written numerous memoirs, but all of them focus fairly narrowly on one particular aspect or time period. I would love to have her whole story in her own words.
I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.
Gail Caldwell was the chief book reviewer for The Boston Globe, and she won the Pulitzer for Criticism. Once I began reading this luminous memoir, I could see that level of quality in her prose. She writes about her childhood in Texas, and about her travels and experiences growing up in the mid-twentieth century. More than anything, this is a feminist memoir, a chance to see how far we have come through a personal lens.
I missed the publication day here, and so I hunted down the audio version to supplement my reading. The author narrates her own work, and so it conveys the feeling that I am sitting by the fire with a dear friend, hearing about the challenges she’s faced as a single woman. Female readers will recognize the sensation: you start talking with a woman that you don’t really know, and before you know it you are talking and listening as if you’ve known one another for ages. That’s the essence of this book. In fact, I listened to it in the evening while preparing dinner, because I knew I’d be left alone during that time, and frankly, I didn’t want anybody to come barreling into the middle of my time with Gail. There’s a sense of intimacy that makes me feel a bit protective when I listen to it. Later, I go over what I’ve read and nod. Yes. Oh, yes, I remember that.
The title works in a number of ways. The darling little neighbor girl that becomes part of the family Gail chooses, bookends the memoir, coming in at the start as a very young person and ending it as an adolescent. But there’s more to it than that; life is a bright precious thing, and though she never says it overtly, I recognize that each woman is a bright precious thing as well.
I am a grandmother myself, but Gail is about the age to be my older sister. Women like Gail gave women like me a guiding light during our coming-of-age years. Our mothers were often resigned to their status as second class citizens, and ready to accept that there were things that women should probably not even try to do, and they couldn’t help transmitting their fears and reticence to us. It is women like Marge Piercy, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, and yes, Gail Caldwell that provided us with a beacon, a way forward through the ocean of “no” to the bright shores of “yes,” that gave us courage to be insistent, even when we knew some would label us pushy broads, or worse. We needed role models badly, and they stepped up. They’re still doing it.
The calm, warm tone that came through this audio book, right during the turbulent period after the November election, was an absolute balm. Sometimes I would be shaken by the things I saw in the national news, and then I would head for my kitchen (perhaps an ironic place to receive a feminist memoir, but it worked for me,) and once I had had my time with Gail, I knew I’d be all right.
Highly recommended to women, and to those that love us.
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.
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.
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, a large cross section of the finest writers alive have written essays, each about one landmark case. Chabon and his co-editor, Ayelet Waldman, contributed their advance to the organization, and all of the contributing authors did so free of charge. As for this reviewer, I’d have been interested in an ACLU publication, even if I hadn’t heard of the writers involved; and I’d have been interested in anything written by Chabon, even if the story or topic wasn’t in my lane. As it is, I count myself beyond lucky to have scored a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It’s for sale now.
This is the sort of book that invites skipping around, either according to subject, or according to the authors you love best. Because of this, I recommend buying it in paper rather than digitally, because flipping around out of order in digital format is a pain in the butt. Also, this is the sort of classical reference material that you’d want on your shelf. In fact, I want a physical copy for myself.
I haven’t read all of the entries, but I’ve read enough of them to recommend it to you. The cases discussed are meaty and interesting, and they aren’t the standard fodder that shows up in every undergraduate course on Constitutional law. Each entry is succinct, and the writers refrain from self-promotion. The entries I appreciate most so far are by Jesmyn Ward, who discusses the use of anti-loitering laws to transform free Black boys and men into slave laborers; Timothy Egan, who details a 1962 decision regarding the right to receive Communist literature in the U.S. mail; and Louse Erdrich, who discusses digital snooping and surveillance used against the Dakota Pipeline protesters in 2016. I know there are many more I want to read, but I am posting this now so that you can get a copy while it’s in the stores.
Here’s your chance. You can get an outstanding addition to your home library while contributing to a worthwhile organization whose work is more crucial now than ever. Highly recommended.
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
Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet
tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries. When the men that work the Quincy mine strike
for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man
drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines
around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they
unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s
for sale right now.
The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one
of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the
US. It’s on the upper peninsula of
Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even
the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than
winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious,
vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before
C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”
Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp
to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the
smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones
like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry
about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but
leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner
present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after
the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety
exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s
auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women
are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but
if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat
strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would
embarrass the WFM.
Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention
to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she
explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes,
and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.
Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite
part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history
should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than
what any biographer has done for her.)
This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.
Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic
read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and
the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance,
and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be
written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and
yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.
For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a
must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it
provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.
“Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed Father.”
Lizzie Borden is the subject of one of America’s most
enduring legends, and Robertson is a towering legal scholar, educated at
Harvard and Oxford, and then at Stanford Law. She’s participated in an international
tribunal dealing with war crimes, and has been researching the Borden case for
twenty years. Here she lays it out for us, separating fact from innuendo, and
known from unknown. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the
review copy. This book is for sale now.
The Borden family lived in the heart of Fall River, and it consisted of Andrew, father of two grown but unmarried daughters Emma and Lizzie, still in residence, and his second wife, Abby. Their mother had died when Lizzie was tiny; Andrew had remarried a woman named Abby, whom Emma never accepted as a parent, but whom Lizzie called her mother until a short time before her grizzly death. Until this time the Borden household was well respected; Andrew was possibly the wealthiest individual in this Massachusetts town, but he was a tightfisted old scoundrel, and his refusal to relocate the family to the fashionable neighborhood on the hill where well-to-do citizens lived made his daughters bitter, as appropriate suitors would not call on them in their current home. Both had passed the age when respectable young women were expected to have married; they held that their father’s greed had ruined their chance at marriage and families of their own. Things had come to a head when Borden was persuaded to purchase the home in which Abby’s sister lived in order to prevent her from being cast out on the street. Emma and Lizzie were angry enough that they wouldn’t go downstairs when the parents were there, and poor Bridget, the servant, had to serve dinner twice to accommodate them. Everyone locked their bedroom doors against the others. Andrew had belatedly tried to smooth his stormy home life by purchasing a comparable house for each of his daughters, but the damage was done.
The story of Lizzie Borden is not a new one, but what sets
Robertson’s telling apart from the rest—apart from the meticulous research and
clarity of sourcing—is her explanation of how the cultural assumptions and
expectations of 1893 New England differed from ours today, and how these
nuances affected the trial. They lived in a time and place in which it was
assumed that women were ruled far more by their hormones and ovulation than by
intellect and reason. In fact:
“Experts like the influential Austrian criminal psychologist
Hans Gross contended that menstruation lowered women’s resistance to forbidden
impulses, opening the floodgates to a range of criminal behaviors…Menstruation
may bring women to the most terrible crimes.”
Had Lizzie confessed to the killings, she might very well
have been judged not guilty; her monthly cycle would have been said to have
made her violent and there was nothing to be done about it, rather like a moose
Criminal behavior was believed to be inherent in some people
and not in others, and this counted in Lizzie’s favor. The Bordens were seen as
a good family, and a girl from a good family doesn’t plot brutal murders. It
isn’t in her. This sort of thing, experts said, was more likely to be done by a
transient or a member of the working class. The women of Fall River were
polarized around this case, and though women from comfortable homes were all
certain that poor Lizzie was being railroaded, working class women weren’t as charitable
in their assessments.
There was a ton of evidence against her, most of it
circumstantial; the most damning aspects of the case against her were ruled inadmissible,
and the jury never got to hear them.
Robertson is a fine storyteller, and her narrative lays it
out for us so clearly. There is occasional gallows humor, as well as amusing
bits of setting not seen in cities of any size today, such as the neighborhood
cow that mooed near the courtroom window at inauspicious moments while
testimony was being given. However, the first half of the book is more compelling
than the second half, because prosecutors and attorneys must repeat things,
sometimes many times and in many ways, in order to convince judges and juries,
and since this book is about the trial, Robertson must do the same. Still it is
fascinating to see how the whole trial shook out.
Those interested in the Borden case, or in true crime
stories in general, should read this book. It’s the clearest, most complete
recounting and analysis available to the public today, written by a legal
scholar that has done the work and cut no corners. `