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Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria and lives in the UK. Her debut novel, The Girl With the Louding Voice,  is about a fourteen year old, Adunni, who is sold to an older man as a third wife after her mother dies, when her father drinks away what money they have and cannot pay the rent. She is heartbroken to have to leave her younger brother, but her best friend tries to tell her being a wife will be wonderful.

It’s not. Her husband repeatedly rapes her and his senior wife hates her. But his middle wife is kind and does her best to protect Adunni, giving her an herbal concoction that she says will keep her from having a child. Adunni is trying to make the best of her life but everything changes in an instant when a tragedy befalls the middle wife and Adunni is terrified of being blamed. She sees no alternative but to run.

And that’s where I thought the book would take a more positive turn (I had read reviews that noted this was a humane and uplifting book). I expected that when Adunni left her village, she would find modern Nigeria and get a job and begin to understand that life could be different. However, first she ends up being taken to work as a housemaid for a mean, vain woman who neither feeds her adequately nor pays her, and worse, beats her and tells Adunni and everyone else within earshot, every chance she gets, that Adunni is illiterate and worthless.

While this is a book mainly about the perils of a patriarchy, it’s important to note that Adunni must overcome the perils of working for an entitled rich woman as well. Yes, we eventually learn that Adunni’s boss, Big Mama, is herself a victim of abuse. Daré clearly wants to illuminate the vicious cycle abuse creates. But there are other vacuous and selfish rich people in the book, so I think there is some social critique going on as well.

Anyway, Adunni works hard, and befriends the others working in the house, who can’t help but like this good natured girl. When her employer, Big Madam, hosts a party for other women, Adunni experiences another life changing moment. While there is a great deal of brutality in this book, a series of kind, humane acts by strangers eventually helps Adunni help herself out of despair. Daré is unsparing in describing the horrors of modern slavery, but she also sees a spark of hope in humanity.

Adunni is smart and determined and draws on the memory of her mother, who was determined to provide an education for her. She vows she’ll get that education and eventually be a teacher, for other girls whose families don’t think they need schooling. Adunni notes, “you must do good for other peoples, even if you are not well, even if the whole world around you is not well.” That resonated with me right now.

While I thought the end was a little bit predictable, that’s understandable in a debut. And honestly, I’ll take a slightly predictable but uplifting ending over brutal art right now.

 

I first read Sarah Moss‘s memoir about living and teaching in Iceland, Names for the Sea, and then her novel Night Waking. I really like Moss’s writing, and admire the research and connections with history that go into her books as well as the recurring theme of gender roles. So when I saw she had a newish (I thought it was new, but it turns out it came out in the US in January 2019, and in 2018 in the UK) short novel set in the north of England, Ghost Wall, I got on the eBook waiting list at my library.

Ghost Wall has the characteristics I cited above. It’s really creepy and tense, however, which I didn’t realize, and which isn’t a) what I’m looking for these days — no more tension, please! nor b) my cup of tea, normally. Still, I stuck it out to the end, which is still pretty tense, but slightly hopeful. Kind of like real life.

The story centers around Silvie, a teenager in 1970s England whose dad is a self-taught prehistory buff (for reasons, Moss implies, that are not entirely academic, but possibly xenophobic). He’s also an opinionated bully who controls what Silvie and her mother do. Including accompanying him on a field trip with a college professor and a handful of his students to live as if they are in the Iron Age. They wear scratchy tunics, forage for nuts, berries, roots, and mushrooms, butcher rabbits, gather mussels, and cook what they hunt and gather in a cauldron over a fire. Silvie and her mother do, that is. The men make plans for further reenactment activities.

Silvie admires the only female student, Molly, and even possibly develops a crush on her. Molly is strong, educated, and comfortable stripping down to her lacy — and matching! — undergarments to go swimming. Silvie, repressed, afraid, without any idea of her future, is enchanted. Her father’s disapproval manifests itself in a belting, and from there, the plot centers around his and the professor’s darker reenactments, Silvie’s inability to extricate herself from their plans, and Molly’s interference.

In between, you may learn a thing or two about subsistence (which Moss does not romanticize a bit), bogs (which you don’t want to fall in), and the depressing idea that mankind has always been nationalist (or at least tribal) and pretty brutal (especially to women). It’s a gripping story, that would provide plenty for a book club to discuss and is a quick read. Just be ready for tension.

I was looking for a break from heavy fiction (War & Peace, which I’m still reading a bit at a time for #Tolstoytogether) and nonfiction (see my last blog post) so I browsed the library’s apps for eBooks. Olga Tokarczuk‘s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a darkly funny mystery, featuring a former bridge engineer, Janina Duszejko, whose Ailment (possibly diabetes?) caused her to give up her exotic international work. She now works very part time as a cartetaker for other people’s country homes and as a primary school English teacher in a Polish village near the Czech Republic border. She also works on translating Blake with a former student, calculates horoscopes (who knew there was so much match in astrology?) and defends animal rights to the aggravation of the area’s hunters. Because sometimes she destroys their hunting pulpits.

When three prominent local men die in the area, Mrs. Duszejko sets out to determine who the killer is, and becomes certain that astrology holds the answer. She sees several signs in the dead men’s horoscopes that indicate animals may be the killers, and she tries to alert the police to this, despite her friends’ warnings that this makes her appear even more eccentric than she already did. Even though the book was first published in 2009, it feels both older and newer; at first I thought perhaps it was taking place in the 80s, but then I realized that one of the characters used a mobile phone early in the book. And towards the end, Mrs. Duszejko notes, “Newspapers rely on keeping us in a constant state of anxiety, on diverting our emotions away from the things that really matter to us.” Which felt like something we just talked about this week at my house.

In some ways Mrs. Duszejko is a sympathetic character; she seems to be very loyal and kind to her friends, is somewhat sweetly quirky, and stands in opposition to cruelty and toxic masculinity. But in other ways she is hard to like; cranky, rude, irrational. The book was enjoyable, but as is usually the case, I found it hard to get through, because e-reading is not my favorite. The ending was not what I was expecting, which is good where murders are concerned.

I’d say, look for it in print, from your local bookstore. It would be a really interesting read for a book club.

Just about a year ago I attended the Association of College & Research Libraries conference in Cleveland and learned, at a free breakfast about using online sources sponsored by a vendor, about A. Philip Randolph. Prior to that, I’d never heard of him, even though he was a significant figure in American history, a labor leader, publisher who founded an important literary and political journal (The Messenger), and major organizer of the March on Washington. Martin Luther King, Jr., honored Randolph as “truly the Dean of Negro leaders.”  We should all question why American history books tend to leave Randolph out (spoiler alert: besides being black, he was a socialist).

The book I finished last night is by another major figure in American history who most of you won’t have heard of: Howard Thurman. He was ten years younger than Randolph, and also became an advisor to MLK. Thurman was a pastor, a professor of religion at several prominent universities, and an influential thinker and speaker.

Jesus and the Disinherited, one of Thurman’s best known books, is also one of The Computer Scientist’s favorite books, and our son also recommended it to me. A few weeks ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quoted from it during his Easter sermon, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to read it. It’s taken me since Easter week to finish, even though it’s a short book. Partially because mid-June is looming (when my master’s dissertation is due), but mainly because it’s an intellectually and spiritually challenging book.

Thurman is very clear; that’s not the hard part. The hard part is the truths the reader has to face. Such as: “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. . . . For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.”

The church had become a tool of oppression, one that perpetuated (and indeed still does in some places — maybe in all places) institutionalized racism, one that offered little to the poor beyond words, one that did not practice what it taught. And yet, Thurman describes a “new courage, fearlessness, and power” that comes from someone knowing they are “a child of God.” That is difficult stuff, all of it. That the church failed the disinherited, and yet, God worked anyway. That Thurman was faithful — so many were faithful — in spite of the church. That he then dedicated his life to helping others regain their own faith.

It gets harder. Thurman addresses fear, deception, and hate before closing with the very difficult work of love, about which he says, “It is the act of inner authority, well within reach of everyone . . . . merely preaching love of one’s enemies or exhortations — however high and holy — cannot, in the last analysis, accomplish this result. At the center of the attitude is a core of painstaking discipline . . . .” If you’ve ever tried to love your “enemy” — or just someone who really, really bugs you, this will ring painfully true.

I really can’t do this book justice in a few paragraphs. You should read it. Just be prepared to read slowly. It’s a good book for these weird times, because even though it’s hard, Thurman saw that real fellowship, based on equity and the kind of just love that “is a common sharing of mutual worth and value” is the only way forward. And it seems to me that’s what we need, in order to pull ourselves out of the mire we find ourselves in.

I ordered Dwellers in the House of the Lord from my independent bookstore when they closed to the public. Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’ve written about Wes McNair‘s poems and nonfiction a number of times over the years, starting with a post during National Poetry Month in 2008, and even reviewed one of his books for the Mindful Reader column. So when I saw that he had a new book-length poem out, I was excited. It’s a short book, and I’d been saving it for Easter, because the book jacket notes “his poetic gaze guides us towards patience and perseverance, the belief that compassion in the face of confusion is the only path forward. Dwellers in the House of the Lord is a thoughtful assessment of the values that shape us at home and across the nation, and a timely poem that is, in the end, a story of love and reconciliation.”

I don’t usually quote book jackets, but that really sums it up pretty well. As he does so well, McNair tells a story in this poem, that of Aimee, his younger sister. While the poem revisits a few key moments in their childhoods, much of it dwells in their more recent lives. Aimee is married to Mike, a man who has in common with her a painful upbringing and a failed first marriage. He runs a gun shop out of their rural Virginia home. Aimee struggles to live with him, finding solace in a church that soon grows into a megachurch. McNair watches warily from Maine. And along comes 2016, and seismic shifts in the story and the country.

What makes this such an exquisite book is the deeply empathetic, soulful vulnerability which carries the narrative forward. McNair doesn’t just see details like “the new cat with a long/white sock and a short white sock,” he sees heart, not only in his sister but in his brother-in-law. One of the tenderest passages describes a visit Mike makes to McNair in Maine:

“But I know another Mike. Arriving without

family at our camp in Maine for an overnight

after visiting his immigrant relatives in Claremont,

this Mike offers us a jar of his homemade Polish

jam and a larger one of preserved fish. Lacking

his rifle, he is awed by the moose we see foraging

across the pond, and in the twilight that gathers

around our screen porch, he tell us about my sister’s

cat, how it can’t get enough of her and follows her all

over the house for the chance to lie in her lap.

In this way, having long since submerged the feeling

life that confuses him, Mike confesses his love.”

McNair goes on to explain his own confusion — vulnerability is a hallmark of his work and it’s fully present in this one. And to trace the trajectory of his sister’s further suffering, but also the small joys they share, the pleasure he takes in spending time with his nieces, the unpredictable nature of reconciliation and even, possibly, redemption, the mystery of his sister’s faith, which he doesn’t share. Even when he must describe suffering, hypocrisy, meanness, McNair is generous and empathetic.

What a story for this Easter, this moment in history, this point in our divided nation and world. Say yes to poetry, to tenderness, to independent publishing, to the triumph of love over hate. Read this book!

Update: you can hear McNair read from the book, in a virtual event for Gibson’s Bookstore, here.

 

I’ve been reading two books — War and Peace, as part of the #Tolstoytogether read led by A Public Space — and The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs.  This morning I finished the latter.

It’s a book I treated myself to at Yale Divinity School bookstore when I was there in February for our son’s senior sermon. Quick plug for this awesome store — it’s an independent bookstore that began as a student coop, and although they are not shipping right now, you should shop there when they reopen! Bookconscious regulars may recall I also bought All About Love by bell hooks that day.

Alan Jacobs’ book is part of a series called Lives of Great Religious Books. I found it very interesting and clear — Jacobs cuts through what could be confusing historical and political context in addition to the theological background and vividly explains why in England, the Book of Common Prayer is more or less the same as it was in 1662. And why there are thousands of pages of alternative prayers and services in Common Worship, as well as many other common prayer books around the Anglican Communion, which makes our worship less likely to be common than I previously understood.

Interestingly, Jacobs also answered a question that occurred to me this Holy Week — on Thursday, the epistle reading in the lectionary was 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, in which Paul explains how Jesus instituted what we know now as the eucharist at the Last Supper. It struck me as I read Paul’s letter and the gospel reading that day that Jesus did not suggest priests had to mediate this for us. He simply said whenever we ate bread and drank wine we should do it in remembrance of him. I wondered how we got from there to here; something I’ve wondered as well as I’ve watched the various theological arguments about how to celebrate eucharist from a distance during COVID-19.

I read with great interest about Gregory Dix and his book The Shape of Liturgy, which Jacobs notes takes about 600 (of 750) pages in “tracing the developments of the Eucharistic liturgy from the earliest records to the late Middle Ages.” It sounds like the answers to my question are there, although I’m not sure I’m up for a 750 word explanation! I also found the sections on the impact of WWI on the arguments in favor of prayer book revision and the influence of the Church of South India and resulting efforts to achieve inculturation very interesting.

A wonderful read, and I look forward to finding more of Jacobs’ books, particularly since he appears to have written one on reading!

Do you recall my saying I need to read something more uplifting? This isn’t it, especially. I love Edwidge Danticat‘s work. If you’ve been with me here at bookconscious for a long time you know I’ve reviewed Claire of the Sea Light (beautiful, a “delicate” book about human frailty) and The Dew Breaker (which is about a torturer — and yet Danticat portrays him with “psychological depth”). So when I saw Danticat had a new collection, Everything Inside, I ordered it for our library.

Her writing is still all the things I’ve said before — masterful, delicate, musical, rich — and her characters are multidimensional. The stories in this collection are not brutal, per se, but they peel back the curtain on the brutality of the world at large. This book explores the immigrant experience from several angles. Many of the stories are about love, and what we’ll do in the name of love, but they are also about other ordinary experiences — coming to terms with a parent’s dementia, dealing with post-partum depression, learning a family secret, trying to understand a friend or loved on who acts in a way we don’t expect, trying to be an adult, dealing with loss.

You definitely shouldn’t miss it. And maybe, reading it now is a reminder that for many people around the world and right here in the U.S., the experience of insecurity, illness, family strife, isolation, and fear is actually normal life.