Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is one terrific book.

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Amazon recommended this book to me, and as a person who loves just about everything Sue Monk Kidd writes, I bought it immediately. AdventureMan had also read a review and said it might be a good book for our book club, so he gets it next. Most of my friends have it on Kindle to read soon.

The book is written in two voices, that of Sarah Gremke’, white, and Charlestonian, of Charleston society families, and the other voice of Hetty/Handful, the slave given to Sarah for her 11th birthday. First Sarah tries to refuse the ‘gift,’ then, using her father’s law books, she writes a letter of emancipation for Hetty, and neither effort works. Sarah and Hetty are stuck with each other, stuck with the times, stuck with their situation, and stuck with the institutions that determine and limit what they will accomplish.

Or are they?

There were times, as I read the book, that I felt like I was going to suffocate. First, the heat and humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, are bad enough without the kinds of close-fitting clothing women were required to wear in that day; the thought of wearing those clothes makes me choke.

The limited expectations for women would stunt and damage the strongest female character in that society where those who thrived were those who were pretty, good at getting married, and good at bearing children, dressing appropriately and socializing endlessly at the same stale events.

Slavery damages everyone. No one should have that kind of power over another human being; studies show that when human beings are given power over another their very worst instincts come to the forefront. Why do we need studies? We have the real world to show us what that kind of power does, how it corrupts the one who holds the power so thoroughly that they don’t even know they are corrupted.

These are stories from my time living in countries where people from poorer countries came to work:

My maid had worked for a family where the men pestered her because she was full time and live-in. They assumed she was sexually available to them and made life very difficult for her. Her mistress saw a beautiful silk blouse she wore, a blouse she had saved for and only wore on her day off, and her mistress borrowed it, stained it, returned it and didn’t take any responsibility for ruining her one really nice blouse. It was never mentioned again. Only when the men complained about this woman was she allowed to leave; her mistress didn’t want the men tempted, she got her passport back and come to work for me. Her previous mistress wanted an ugly maid, and the men were hoping for someone more compliant.

The woman who bought my car had saved and saved, and was working under deplorable conditions in a day care. I told her that she had skills, get another job, and she told me that she hadn’t been paid for three months, and if she left she would never get that pay, and also her employer would never give her her passport or allow her to leave. She was, in effect, a slave.

Most of my friends are very good employers, taking good care of the people who come to work for them, but I have seen those (not my friends) who are violent and abusive. Being a slave is being trapped in an existence with no control over your own life.

Monk makes an interesting comparison of white women’s lives with their limitations being not unlike a variant of slavery. Maybe the conditions were a little better, but the un-free-ness was similar.

Sarah Grimke’ and her sister Angelina, against all odds, break free of family expectations and societal constraints. They forge their own way, with Angelina’s gift for rhetoric and Sarah’s keep legal writing. I had never heard of these women before, and I am so glad Sue Monk Kidd wrote this book to raise their visibility both as abolitionists and as some of the very first proponents for women’s rights to full equality.

As a quilter, I also loved in this book that Handfull’s mother is a quilter, and while she can neither read nor write, she puts down her history in an applique quilt which clearly spells out significant events in her life, and is a tool for passing family history from one generation to another.

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January 18, 2014 Posted by | Biography, Books, Community, Cultural, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Heritage, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Social Issues, Women's Issues, Work Related Issues | , , , , | Leave a comment

All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

AdventureMan came into the room where I was reading and handed me this book. “Will you read this?” he asked, and there was a note in his voice that sounded a little aggrieved.

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“What’s up?” I asked. “You sound a little peeved.”

“I read this,” he said. “I thought it was pretty good, but when I read the reviews on Amazon, some people called it ‘trivial’,” and I could see he was embarrassed that something he thought was pretty good others believed was of little importance.

Big mistake, Adventureman.

I might read a little of the reviews when deciding whether to buy a book or not, because I won’t remember it when it comes time to actually read the book or review the book, but I never, NEVER read the reviews as I am reading or before I review a book. And, truthfully, I don’t really care what this reviewer says or that reviewer says. Sometimes I read a New Yorker review of a book and I think “that reviewer has her own filter and can’t see beyond her framework” or “Wow! That reviewer saw some things I’d like to see!” Sometimes I will read a review and then read the book and think that the reviewer really missed the mark, positively or negatively, it could be either way.

Reviews are opinions. We all have them. Some you might agree with, some you might not, but don’t let them touch you, or your experience with the book. We are each unique, and see through a unique lens!

First, it delighted me that I read this just after I read Babayaga, because I ejnoy Paris, and delight in walking Paris, and in Babayaga and in All the Light There Was, people do a lot of walking in Paris. So much so in All the Light There Was that I ran down to my little map collection for the Paris maps and would track the heroine through Paris. It was fun.

Although All the Light There Was is called a novel, I don’t think it is. As I read it, I thought it was highly biographical or autobiographical, based on a diary or diaries. The significant details – how the mama stockpiled food just as war was announced and all the places she stored it, including under the bed, the clothing they wore, the sweaters they knit, the indignities they endured, and the risks they bravely took against the occupying Germans – it doesn’t sound made up to me, it sounds like a story someone has told from that time.

The details are so strong – the bicycle tires that are treasured because if they go flat, that is the end of the last transport they have, the dresses that have become too big because people have eaten too little – these details sound like voices to me.

So I would not call this book trivial. This book captures a moment in time, it’s a snapshot. The characters don’t have a lot of depth, the events don’t have a lot of texture, but I do know what occupied Paris ate during the last years of the occupation (turnips) and the ambivalence with which Paris viewed their Jewish citizens. In this war-time Paris, Kricorian captures well Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s poem about When They Came for Me:

In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

Many in Paris were happy to see the Jews go, happy it wasn’t them. Kricorian tackles this issue indirectly, with a light but inescapable hand.

One of the things that was shocking to both of us what that when Maral’s ancient Auntie Shakeh died, and we see the tombstone – she is 35 years old. We knew she and Maral’s parents had escaped the Turkish efforts to eradicate the Armenians in Turkey, but because we are seeing the story through Maral’s eyes, her parents and aunt seem ancient, whereas in today’s terms, they are very young adults.

Don’t read the reviews, AdventureMan! Read the book, take from the book what you will, enjoy your own experience. Write your own reviews!

January 18, 2014 Posted by | Books, Civility, Community, Cooking, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Living Conditions, Paris, Survival, Values | , | 2 Comments

Babayaga by Toby Barlow

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You know how books come your way in coincidental ways? Amazon.com had told me I needed to read Babayaga, so I ordered it. I’ve always loved mythologies, I devoured them like candy when I was young, always looking for more. Babayagas are very old, and exist under many names in most cultures – elderly women who usually deal with concoctions, often medicinal, who live alone. In the west, they were often called witches, in the Slavic countries, babayaga, and it seems to me there is an old woman used to scare children in the Gulf, too. It seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Babayaga:

Baba Yaga is a witch (or one of a trio of sisters of the same name) in Slavic folklore, who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking elderly woman. She flies around in a mortar and wields a pestle. She dwells deep in the forest, in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs, with a fence decorated with human skulls. Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter or seek her out, and may play a maternal role. She has associations with forest wildlife. Sometimes she frightens a hero (e.g. by promising to eat him), but helps him if he is courageous. According to Vladimir Propp’s folktale morphology, Baba Yaga commonly appears as a donor, a villain, or something altogether ambiguous. In many fairy tales she kidnaps and eats children, usually after roasting them in her oven).

Andreas Johns identifies Baba Yaga as “one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in eastern European folklore,” and observes that she is “enigmatic” and often exhibits “striking ambiguity.”[1] Johns summarizes her as “a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a cloud, moon, Death, Winter, snake, bird, pelican or earth goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image”.[2]

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Barlow’s BabaYaga includes all the backstory, inserted here and there, the Russian purges, revolts, revolutions, the wars, the mud, the snows, following the troops, and several different Babayaga, while focusing one one, the beautiful and mesmerizing Zoya, who lives in a magical post World War II Paris. She in unforgettable – unless, of course, she has woven a spell to muddy your mind and make you forget.

What I love about this book is that if it were true, you would still think it is fiction. If every single thing happened just as Barlow wrote it, you would never believe it. LOL! A wicked sour old babayaga turns a police detective investigating a murder into a flea; he finds it a novel experience and manages to make things come right even as a flea.

A young American man, Will, loving living in Paris, works for an ad agency and also for THE Agency in the heady days of post war Paris, where the rules are not yet in place and lines are fuzzy. Falls for a witch with a long history of loving and killing men, but that’s life. Is it better to love and lose than never to have loved? What if your love is a gorgeous babayaga who helps you live life with a vibrance and intensity you have never experienced?

There is a long, intricate, time-appropriate adventure/spy/industrial-scientific plot which I am not sure I entirely followed, with murders and shootouts and the Paris jazz and club scene, and it didn’t matter one whit whether I could follow the plot line or not, it was a wild ride of a novel and a lot of fun. 🙂

January 18, 2014 Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Birds, Books, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Paris | Leave a comment