Friday, November 30, 2007


One Thousand White Women, Jim Fergus, St Martin's Press, 1998, 302 pp

May Dodd was a rebellious young woman from a rich Chicago family who ran off with her lower class lover and had two children. Her parents eventually took the children and had May committed to an insane asylum.

According to fact, Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf, in an effort to preserve the life of his people, journeyed to Washington, DC, in 1874 and proposed to President Ulysses S Grant that the US government give 1000 white women as brides to his tribe in exchange for 1000 horses. In this way, the Cheyenne warriors would produce children of the Indian and White race mixed and those children would integrate the Cheyenne into the life and culture of the White man.

Not a bad idea really but of course the leaders of our country would not consider such a savage and non-Christian endeavor. Jim Fergus decided to write a "what-if-that-happened" story. May Dodd becomes one of those brides in hopes of someday being free to return to her children and family. Through her journals she tells the story.

So it is all quite improbable but most of the time Fergus kept me in a willing suspension of disbelief. He is an engaging writer and creates quite some impressive characters among the women: daughter of former slaves Euphemia, a fallen Southern woman, a zealous Christian missionary, etc.

Finally by the inevitable disastrous ending, the conceit began to wear thin for me, but it was still an enjoyable read as well as a good piece of imagination backed up by competent research.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Sex Wars, Marge Piercy, William Morrow, 2005, 408 pp

Never before have I read a novel set in post Civil War America that was from the women's side of the story. Here we have Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Victoria Hull slugging it out for freedom and rights for women. Every main female character is strong, vehement about being in charge of her own life and completely flippant about what any man might expect of her. Which is not to say that they did not like men or engage in passionate sex (except for Susan B Anthony who was a virgin all her life, but also the most conservative.)

The writing was a bit odd; not bad exactly but certainly not literary or lyrical. However, once I got hooked on the story, I didn't care. I think every American woman should read this book, but especially young women in their 20s and 30s, lest the battles fought and won for women be forgotten. I am so glad I read this book and learned the history of those battles.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Continuing my memoir-in-progress, in which I ponder the way my life developed in the context of the main fiction published in those years. To read earlier chapters click on the label at the end of this post. This is the 13th chapter.

The Happy Family

My memories of this year of my life are slim. I went from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years of age and it seems to me now to have been a year of settling in to family life without a lot of change. The world was in a state of flux with major political changes in Israel, Iran, Ireland and Czechoslovakia, while the United States and Great Britain moved ever more towards conservatism. Congress passed the 22nd amendment, limiting service as President to two terms. The Korean War waged on with North Korea (and thus Communism) winning for most of the year. Because of this and due to some of his wackier ideas, General MacArthur was relieved of his command, yet all attempts to negotiate an armistice failed.

By the end of 1951, thanks to the Marshall Plan and billions of American dollars, many Europeans countries had recovered economically and production-wise to levels higher than before WWII. Americanization of Europe was well on its way in terms of pop culture, though resentment towards America was also present. Rearmament in Europe and the United States had raised taxes.

The problems facing the last years of President Truman's term as President of the United States included inflation, labor troubles, discrimination against Blacks (especially in the South with poll taxes and lynching still going on) and poverty. But the main story of the 1950s was the Cold War: the fight between communism and democracy and the threat of nuclear weapons. The discovery and conviction of Russian spies in 1951 was fomenting an extreme fear of communism in our country which would lead to the abuses by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other witch hunters. While the Korean War was anything by cold, I see it as a dramatization of this conflict between democracy and communism while the Marshall Plan demonstrated that democracy won when money and expansion were present.

In the books I read from 1951, war and military subjects dominated the Bestseller list with five out of the top 10 books being about WW II. Three of the bestsellers were religious in content and only two were historical fiction. The #1 bestseller was also my favorite: From Here to Eternity by James Jones was a big war book with strong emotional impact. The other novel which stuck with me was Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson which ranks with any of the top literary titles of today. I read five books of science fiction in which the authors were busy predicting futures which are the present today. Except for the war books and the religious, the literature of 1951 was mainly concerned with the present and the future.

In film, the award winning films were two about contemporary times and one historical. "All About Eve" won Best Picture and Best Director (Joseph L Mankiewitz), starred Bette Davis and told the story of an upstart young actress usurping the reigning actress of the day. "Born Yesterday" took Best Actress (Judy Holliday), who played a dumb blond who gets wise and busts her criminal boss. This movie was remade with Melanie Griffith in 1993 and it would be hard to pick which version is the better one. "Cyrano de Bergerac" took Best Actor (Jose Ferer). It was based on a play which is pretty much a romantic comedy set in 1640s France.

In popular music, two of the hit songs of the day were from "The King and I", which was playing on Broadway that year. "Hello Young Lovers" was recorded by Perry Como and "Getting to Know You" was recorded by many. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", a re-write by Leadbelly and Pete Seeger of an Irish ballad was made famous by The Weavers. Also this year, Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the operetta "Amahl and the Night Visitors" on commission from NBC TV. Once we got a television, I would see this every Christmas of my childhood. The great synergy of theatre, film, radio and television had begun.

The world of science continued to develop peacetime uses for discoveries made in wartime: chemicals for fertilizer and atomic energy for electricity. Penicillin and streptomycin were in wide use in the United States getting kids through their childhood ailments, thus helping the population grow.

In out little house in suburban Pittsburgh, my parents were creating a safe haven. Daddy went to work everyday and my mom was playing the role of 1950s suburban housewife. My sister Linda and I had chicken pox at the same time, but most of my memories are happy. There were evenings when Mom would play songs on the piano while Linda and I marched and danced around. We visited neighbors with children and went to birthday parties. An older man from across the street would come and take me for walks in the woods behind his house. Mr Muchow was childless with an invalid wife but to me he was a personification of Santa Claus and Jesus combined, as he took me quite seriously, talking to me about my life and the trees and animals around us. I've had dreams about this amazing man all of my life.

Sometimes we had guests for dinner, which was called "having company." I was always willing to sing a song or tell a joke for the adults. My mom says this was my idea and I never had to be persuaded. I did love that feeling of being the center of attention. My dad had a great sense of humor and taught me the jokes I told. My signature song was "Jesus Loves Me."

Mom always had a pile of magazines in a corner of the living room. I would sit there for hours and "read" them, making up stories about the pictures. I also had blocks to build with, though Linda would most often come along and wreck my structures while laughing with glee. I kept my rage in check because pretty much all was right in my world and I didn't want it any differently.

Despite the occasional crisis with my grandparents which Daddy would have to handle, even though money was probably tight, I think my parents felt they had somewhat arrived in their own life. Through education, Mom escaped her small farm town life and Daddy had escaped his parents' home. They shared a strong Christian faith, a work ethic and a love of children. The happiness and safety I felt that year were in a large part created by my parents in the spirit of the "better world" America was supposed to be building. Though the next year would bring new changes for them and me, I was content and adjusted to our home and my little sister.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Laurel Canyon, Michael Walker, Faber and Faber Inc, 2006, 248 pp

Interesting history of the area in Los Angeles where Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills and Nash and many other musicians of the late 60s and 70s lived and from where they built their careers. After giving a brief back story from before the hippies came, he goes into just enough detail to bring it all alive. Then he give his analysis of how it fell apart, including the Laurel Canyon scene as well as the music and careers of its musicians and the ideals of my generation. Michael Walker (and who is he anyway?) may have bit off more than he could chew.

While I didn't always believe the author or completely trust all of his information, I enjoyed reading about a period of time which was a sort of golden age of my lifetime. I still feel that the sentiments of peace, love and understanding were valid and it is significant that most of what hippies and their music were pointing out about the ills of the world turned out to be true. Right on!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Sister Mine, Tawni O'Dell, Shaye Areheart Books, 2006, 405 pp

Shae-Lynn has had a tough life. Her mother died when she was six, just days after giving birth to her sister. Her father was an abusive coal-miner and Shea-Lynn learned to dodge him when possible and protect her sister. She has been a cop, both in Washington, DC, and in her small Pennsylvania home town.

Now she drives the town's only cab and her son is the deputy sheriff. Her sister disappeared some 16 years ago but has reappeared, very pregnant and pursued by an odd assortment of people: a Connecticut housewife, a lawyer and a Russian gangster.

Shae-Lynn is tough, sexy, gritty, wry and deep down still emotionally wounded. As this excellent tale unfolds you learn about her life and the eccentric coalminers in their failing town. The sister's story falls out like the best of mysteries and the ending is satisfying and just right.

Really an amazing piece of writing: equal parts heartrending, suspenseful and humorous. Deep issues with a breezy style that makes a perfect read for any season.

Friday, November 09, 2007


 A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz, Harcourt Inc, 2004, 538 pp

Here is another book I have been meaning to read ever since it was published. I loved it, even though he is sometimes wordy and repeats himself. I read it for one of my reading groups but it was my suggestion.

Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem to Jewish parents who had arrived in the forming country of Israel in the late 1930s from Poland. The parents were both highly educated and Amos' father's family were writers and scholars. Raised in this atmosphere, Oz became quite the bookish prodigy at a young age. He began writing poems and stories as a child.

I thought I would learn about kibbutz life since Oz moved to a kibbutz in his teens, but about that he told little. Instead he thoroughly explores the lives of his immigrant extended family in the 1940s and 1950s from his memories of being a child then.

It is a powerful story and brought me to understand, as I hadn't previously, the extreme oppression against Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia. I saw how that led to an almost fanatical belief in the concept of Israel and why Jews there would defend it even unto death. Oz does not so much excuse excesses that the Jews have engaged in against Palestine and Arabs, as he does show how such a state of affairs came about. The betrayals by Great Britain are enumerated but I saw the long history of the Jews as the roots of it all.

For Amos Oz and his family the losses of home, family members killed by Nazis and a whole way of life were hard in the extreme. His mother finally succumbed to depression and ended her life when Oz was just 12 years old. A Tale of Love and Darkness is his way of coming to terms with his mother's suicide and as he slowly revealed the details I found myself riveted to every page. The mother spent hours telling the young Amos tales that she knew or invented; Amos has told her tale.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier, Random House Inc, 2006, 252 pp

"The City" is a place where dead people hang out for a while, living somewhat regular lives, except they all know that they have died. Eventually they disappear. The theory amongst them is that as long as there is someone left on Earth who remembers any one of them, they remain in The City.

Meanwhile, the people of Earth are rapidly dying from a virus which has spread across the entire planet. In Antarctica is a woman who was part of an exploratory/promotional mission funded by Coca Cola.

I can't say more without giving away too much. I loved the wild imagination of this story. The book is like a dream: it doesn't all make sense but has a wondrous quality. There is nothing creepy or depressing about a story of dead people and the destruction of the human race. How did he do that?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007



 The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad, Little Brown and Company, 2003, 288 pp

Back to Afghanistan. A Norwegian journalist, after spending six weeks reporting on the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, spent months living with an Afghan family in Kabul. This book is an account of what she learned.
The head of the family is Sultan Khan, a bookseller who survived all the different regimes, the burning of his books, periods of exile in Pakistan and time in prison. He believes passionately in books, literature and education as the way for his country to enter the modern world. Yet he has two wives and is the undisputed patriarch over his wives, brothers, sisters and sons.
Seierstad portrays this welter of conflicting ideas and particularly the plight of Afghan women with a balanced reportorial prose. She seems to be saying, "This is the way it is." Once again I was left with a sense of my good fortune to live in America, but also from the author's interpretation, an understanding of the slow progress of a civilization from ancient customs and almost barbarian oppression to an awareness of themselves. I felt more strongly than ever the importance of books and interchange of ideas between cultures as a means to bring about more peace in the world.
If only the leaders of the world could or would better understand both the cultures they lead and those they oppose. Perhaps Plato was right about the qualities and education required for leadership.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Archangel, Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, 1996, 390 pp

A writer friend of mine, who is currently shopping her first sci fi novel, recommended this author to me and as Anne McCaffrey says in the blurb, "I was truly deeply delighted." The planet Samaria has a perfect society with strict laws swiftly punished if disobeyed but a way of life that includes diverse peoples who respect each other. Angels guard the mortals and mystics guard forbidden knowledge. Jehovah is their God but is actually an armed starship programmed to unleash terrible destruction if peace is not maintained.

The head angel, the archangel, is corrupt and self-serving. He is to be replaced by Gabriel who must find his predestined mortal wife. She is Rachel, a girl with a tragic past and a rebellious prickly personality. Part of the story is about how Gabriel and Rachel work out their destiny. To do so involves defeating the evil plans of the current archangel.

What I liked best was the background of music and singing. The angels help maintain peace through harmonious singing. There is a tradition of arias which only angels can sing. But the whole book and the world of Samaria are created with such a rich imagination that I was pleased throughout. Rachel is a complex and vibrant character. Quite an unusual read.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Eat the Document, Dana Spiotta, Scribner, 2006, 290 pp

Excellent! Two young political protesters in the early 1970s have to go underground separately when one of their actions makes them wanted criminals. First you get Mary's story: changing her name, trying to live and work below the radar, moving around from place to place, cutting all ties with her parents. Spiotta evokes this life with its loss, loneliness and fear so well that I felt the woman's suffering.

Interspersed are chapters set in late 1990s Seattle with suburban kids doing their own forms of protest, which I think pales in comparison to the scene in the 60s and 70s. As a reader, you see that all these people are tied somehow to the original couple, but the story plays out mysteriously enough that I was pulled along wanting to find out how it all fit together.

A great read with realistic portrayals of both generations through the cultural language, technology and music of the times. I felt involved with each main character and nostalgic (if that is the right word) for the activism and feminism of my young adult years.