Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.

The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a little gift planted in her by a college professor who groomed her, screwed her in the upstairs lounge at school, and then dumped her so he could move on to the next nubile young lady in her class. It’s a time in history when becoming a single mother was an absolute taboo for any Caucasian woman of the middle class. Perhaps you had to be there, but I am telling you it was simply unthinkable. Not only would she have lost friends; her entire family would have lost friends, and maybe relatives also. The social stain was one that did not wash out.

And while we are talking about the time period—starting in 1960—I need to point out that Myers has nailed, with brilliant yet discreetly woven detail, the settings of the time periods between then and now in a way that’s undeniable and that draws me further into the story. Some authors try to use shortcuts in writing historical fiction, and when they do it you can tell they don’t have a grasp of the period: they toss in the names of popular celebrities, clothing styles, and other prominent bits of pop culture that they could glean from a ten-minute web crawl. Myers does the opposite. She focuses on the story and character, character, character, but the time period comes out in the background, as it should, with every aspect from the slang of the period, to its social mores, to every aspect of daily living. This reviewer grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the story progresses, I find myself thinking, “I remember that!” I highlighted a hundred references that won’t fit into this review just out of sheer admiration.

Those that just want a beach read can get this book and use it as such, but for those that want to peel off the layers and look for what’s underneath, the feminist message is one we can relate to today easily. The assumptions that are made about her as a wife, that she is an appendage, and the way her family treats her speak to me. In some ways, I find myself thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman simply becomes part of the home environment; at one point Phoebe notes that her family doesn’t want to hear her talk, and they don’t even really want to share their own stories with her, but she’s like a lamp that should be present when desired for whatever purpose suits the moment.

In the end, when her husband goes to jail for having stolen every penny from his investors, Phoebe has a choice to make. She can stand by her man, trying to eke out a little stash for his prison account so that he can buy candy bars and stamps, or she can live her life without him. To some it might seem to be an obvious decision, but by the time he is jailed, she is past sixty; she has lived her entire adult life with this man, and the mind of a senior citizen is not as flexible as a younger one. The way she works through it is riveting.

Read it as a feminist folk tale or read it as a beach read; one way or the other, this novel is highly recommended. (less)

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

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.

City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy*****

cityofdarknesscityoflightPiercy is a legend among feminists, and her writing was pivotal in my own development during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a newly-hatched adult. When this title, a novel based on the French Revolution, came out in 1996, I put it on my Christmas list and read it hungrily once I received it. When I noticed that it was released digitally this spring, I scored a digital copy from Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It’s a novel that is definitely worth reading twice.

Piercy is brilliant not only in bringing characters to life—and she did a prodigious amount of work before doing so, reading piles of biographies, memoirs, letters and other documents—but also in conveying the reader to the time and place In question. I think it’s because of this that her novel helped me to understand how such an amazing, incredible thing, the revolution, the democratic impulse that overthrew a monarchy, could end so badly. Dry history texts chronicle the “excesses” of the Jacobins. Say what? How meaningless is that? And it is by being able to see the roles played by key figures in the revolution, including the women that are usually left out, that I can see why the leadership degenerated as it did. An inexperienced working class with no background in how to organize a struggle ultimately paid the price, but in the end, the nation was still better off than it had been beforehand.

Using the grammar and conversational conventions of today for easier access to a popular audience, Piercy transports us back to a time when a life expectancy was less than fifty years for most people; open sewers flowed through the streets of Paris, causing horrible illnesses and a high infant mortality rate; and a starving seven year old child could be publicly hanged for stealing bread.

In fact, the bread riots led by the women of Paris were where it all began.

One thing readers should know if they read this novel digitally is that there is a glossary of sorts, a long list of characters and a few basic facts to identify them, but it’s at the back of the book, so you will want to go over it before you start and then refer back to it when you find yourself confused. The topic is huge, and you may need this cheat sheet, so it’s good to know it’s there. There are so many historical characters here, and if you aren’t fluent in this area, you may lose track of Robespierre, Danton, Madame Roland, and oh of course, Marat. And back then, Camille was a man’s name!

Piercy tells the story using the points of view of a wide range of figures important to this struggle. She gives a fair hearing to the perspectives of those that stood left, right, and center in this conflict, denying a sympathetic ear only to royalty—and even Marie Antoinette is treated with surprising sympathy. I came away feeling as if I knew so much more about the French Revolution and its terrible conclusion when I had read it, and rereading it was even more helpful, because it’s a lot to digest all at once, even if one is already aware of the broad contours of this pivotal time in French history.

When I love a book hard, I push it at everyone that comes within my reach, and I have pushed this particular novel at a lot of people over the years. Given how many times I loaned out my own (purchased) hard cover copy, it’s surprising that it isn’t falling apart, and maybe even more surprising that it’s always been returned to me.

Whether you prefer to read digitally or to purchase a paper copy, City of Darkness, City of Light is the most readable, accessible treatment of the French Revolution that I have seen. The fact that Piercy includes the key role played by women, both among the toiling masses and the elite salons of the intelligentsia makes it even better.

Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone that wants to understand the French Revolution!

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford*****

radiogirlsFearless women change history.

Radio Girls is a fictionalized account of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the remarkable women that shaped it. As we near the centennial of women’s right to vote in the USA and the UK, Stratford’s riveting historical fiction could not be better timed. I received my copy free and in advance thanks to Net Galley and Berkley Press in exchange for this honest review. I am overjoyed to be able to recommend this new release unequivocally. You have to read it.

Maisie Musgrave is born in Canada and raised in New York City. Tossed out of the nest without a parachute by unloving family, she makes her way to Britain, the place her heritage began. She wanders into the BBC half-starved and looking for an honest way to pay for her room and board, hoping in the meanwhile to meet a man she can marry for financial security.

At the BBC she meets supervisor Hilda Matheson, who fears nothing:  “Give that woman an inch and she takes the entire British Isles,” a colleague remarks.

Under the firm and commanding wing of Matheson, Maisie’s confidence and talent grow daily. It’s a very good thing, because over the course of time, more will be demanded of her than secretarial skills and errand-running.  My busy fingers marked one clever, articulate passage after another to share with you, but to enjoy Stratford’s fresh, humorous word-smithery, you really need the book itself.

Occasional historical figures drop in—Lady Astor, who was a moving force in the development of the BBC and a champion of women; Virginia Woolf, early feminist writer and crusader. Yet Stratford metes out these references in small enough batches that it’s clear she isn’t relying on them to hold her story together; rather, they are the cherry on the sundae.

Setting of time and place, pacing, and a million twists and turns in plot make this a good read, but it’s the character development that makes it a great one. I found myself wanting to talk to Maisie and cheering her on when she broke through to higher ground personally and professionally. I feared for her when she veered into dangerous waters and nearly wept with relief each time she was able to extricate herself and move forward. There isn’t a slow moment or an inconsistent one, and the protagonist is just the character women need to see right now as we move forward too.

How much of this is based on truth and how much made up for the sake of a great story? Read the author’s notes; she spills it all.

All told, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s historical feminist tale is perfect for today’s modern feminists—and those that love us.

This book is available to the public Tuesday, June 14. Change the screen and order a copy for yourself now. You won’t want to miss it!

 

Small Changes, by Marge Piercy*****

SmallChangesPiercyThis title was originally published in 1973 during the second wave of feminism that followed the US Civil Rights movement, and then the anti-war movement against the US invasion of Vietnam. Marge Piercy is a prominent veteran writer who spoke to women’s issues during that time and in years to follow. She doesn’t need my review, and neither does Open Road Integrated Media, I suspect, but my thanks go to them and Net Galley for letting me reread this wonderful novel digitally. I received this copy free in exchange for an honest review, but the reader should also know that I came to this galley with a strong, strong affinity for Piercy’s work already, and my bookshelves are lined with paperbacks and hard cover copies of her books. But they are thick and sometimes heavy to the arthritic hand, and it’s a joy to be able to read them on a slender electronic reader. It was released digitally April 12, 2016 and is available for purchase now.

In 1973, many young adults had cast off the fetters of the impossibly repressive social relations of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Their parents, on the other hand, were frequently entrenched in the mores that had been with them all of their lives, and felt threatened by the new ideas—some of which were actually pretty stupid—that many Boomer era teens and twenty-somethings embraced. Some notions that were new then are ones most of us now take for granted. Most of western civilization is no longer troubled, for example, by the idea that a woman may want to have a career, and that some women don’t want to have children. Most parents no longer speak of marrying a daughter as a way to transfer the expense of feeding and sustaining her from themselves to a man.

But in 1973, these social mores were still really prevalent. So to readers younger than fifty, or perhaps younger than forty, some of Piercy’s text is going to appear to be over-the-top, a vast exaggeration. It isn’t. And I have to thank Piercy for the gift of her insights, which came to me while I was a young woman still determining what was and was not acceptable in my own relationships.

The sly way Piercy makes her most prominent point is in following the lives of women, two in particular: Beth, who at the story’s outset, is indeed being “married off”, and Miriam, the least-favored child of the family who goes away to school and moves into a series of unconventional relationships. There’s a lot of the cultural flavor of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s here, and Piercy uses her narrative to describe ways in which even the most enlightened women, those seeking to build bonds with other women and support them as they set out to fulfill their dreams, nevertheless find themselves mired in unequal, sometimes physically and emotionally abusive relationships. Women that believe they have liberated themselves by refusing to marry, or by joining a commune and not being monogamous, nevertheless find themselves trapped in destructive situations. Piercy shows us how every woman in her story can see that a good friend is in a bad place; each woman doubts herself first when she starts to reconsider her own entanglements.

It is interesting in hindsight that communal and non-monogamous relationships could be discussed freely, but lesbianism was still so far out on the periphery that not even the most trusted of straight friends were necessarily going to be in on the nature of the coupling. And this is dead accurate given the time period; I was there. And gay sex among men was a mental cobweb to be brushed away. Tran sexuality was still considered a sign of mental illness by nearly everyone, and it isn’t in this book.

Because it deals with relationships and the internal narratives primarily of women, with occasional side-trips into the heads of the men both women encounter, and also of other women Beth and Miriam are close to, this novel is likely to be labeled “Chick Lit”, a genre title I have become increasingly reluctant to use. Think of it this way: how many women have read novels that are entirely about men or one man, and considered what they just read to be relevant and at times, superior literature? And now I have to wonder why, when a book is almost entirely about women or a woman, told from a feminine perspective, it is assumed by so many people that men should not be interested in that literature also?

Note that this tome exceeds 500 pages. The text itself should be accessible to anyone with a high school diploma or equivalency, but not everyone has sufficient stamina to make it through a book of this length. However, if one is on the borderline, and especially if one is a woman interested in evaluating the nature of our most important relationships, this would be a fine place to begin reading longer books.

For those that enjoy reading about this time period, and for those interested in modern feminism as well as the history of American feminist thought, Piercy’s body of work, including this title, should be unmissable.  Her towering feminist presence was a beacon to so many of us, and many of the issues that were so urgent then are still urgent now.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.