Monthly Archives: January 2019

A Measure of Light, by Beth Powning

measureoflightStill in the 17th century, I turned to Canadian novelist Beth Powning’s novel about early American martyr Mary Dyer. I’ve already read one novel about Dyer, Mary Dyer: Illuminated by my friend (and real-life Dyer descendant) Christy K. Robinson, who probably knows as much about Mary Dyer as any one alive. Powning’s novel takes a more literary and less historical approach to the story, but still hews pretty closely to the historical facts so far as we know them (though filling in many gaps that are not known to history). 

The fundamental problem with writing an engaging novel about Mary Dyer is that while she did something absolutely admirable and fascinating for a woman of her time — deliberately committing civil disobedience and choosing to die a martyr’s death as a form of protest against a brutal theocracy — many of the same qualities that made her admirable also make her difficult for the modern reader to identify with. To Powning’s credit, she leans hard into this “unlikeable female protagonist” issue rather than trying to soften Mary’s character or make her more “relatable.” In Powning’s portrait, as Mary grows closer to God, she also becomes more distant from her husband and children, less bound by wordly ties. She may not be likeable, but Mary Dyer is never less than memorable in this re-telling of her story.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

talkaboutraceThis book pairs very well with Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here, which I read last year, although unlike Brown’s book, Oluo’s is written in the broad context of American society in general rather than Brown’s specific context of the evangelical church. Like I’m Still Here, however, So You Want to Talk About Race challenges a white reader like me with uncomfortable facts about racism and the ways in which we are all complicit in and benefit from white supremacy even if we think we’re not racist. Oluo very thoroughly and patiently breaks down a lot of concepts (like “microaggressions,” for example) that some of us may have trouble understanding if we haven’t experienced. Every generality about racism is illustrated with on-point examples from her own life, and specific advice about how to talk (and how not to talk) about race — much of which can be boiled down to: in conversations about race, listen to what people of colour are saying, let them take the lead, and support them. Common sense maybe, but it’s not so common.

As a 53-year-old white Newfoundlander, having grown up and lived most of my life in a place that has a very different history with race than, say, the United States, I find myself at midlife forced to re-examine and think about a lot of my own prejudices and preconceived notions about race (including that most foundational one, that OF COURSE I’m not racist). This book was really helpful to me in doing some of that re-examination.

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

dressmakerI listened to this audiobook about a young Afghan woman, Kamila Siddiqi, who had just graduated from teacher’s college on the day the Taliban entered her home city of Kabul. Rather than embarking on the career she had expected as a teacher in a country that was riven by civil war but still a place of relative freedom and opportunity, Kamila and her sisters found themselves living under a brutal totalitarian theocracy that insisted that women leave their homes as rarely as possible, and then only under cover of the head-to-toe chadri

However, with their father and elder brother forced into exile, Kamila, her sisters, and younger brother also faced the problem of supporting themselves. Their quest for a business that could be run at home under the strict limitations imposed by the Taliban (and, not coincidentally, the fact that a married older sister was already a successful dressmaker) led them to begin a tailoring business that quickly expanded to offer training and employment opportunities to many girls and women in their neighbourhood. Throughout it all, they had to practice utmost care and discretion: while quietly sewing in one’s own home was considered acceptable for a woman, running a business was definitely dangerous, especially when it required the woman to leave her home and do business with shopkeepers and customers.

Kamila’s story is written by American writer Gayle Lemmon, who interviewed Kamila several times over a long period. “As told to” stories are difficult: I know, because I wrote one once, and although it was the hardest work I’ve ever done, it produced one of the poorest pieces of writing I’ve ever written. It takes tremendous skill to bring the real drama of another person’s experience to life on the page while still sticking closely to the facts of what happened to them. I think it’s fair to say that Lemmon’s writing skills are not always as strong as the Siddiqi women’s stories are, and that there are gaps that could have been better filled in. However, the story itself is compelling simply as a reminder of how regimes like the Taliban treat women, and how every detail of everyday life becomes not only much harder, but actually terrifying, under a system that tightly controls what everyone, especially women, can think, say and do. Kamila Siddiqi’s courage comes through clearly against this backdrop of oppression.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general

Daughters of the Witching Hill, by Mary Sharratt

witchinghillI’ve been keeping my fiction reading pretty deeply rooted in the early 17th century lately, as that’s the period I’m researching, and the latest of the three Mary Sharratt novels (not a series) set in this period that I’ve read is particularly close to my interests, as there might just be a witch trial in my upcoming novel. Daughters of the Witching Hill deals with the famous case of the Pendle witches in England in 1612. The arrest, trials and executions of this group of people (mostly women, but a couple of men) are quite well detailed in a contemporary source. Sharratt has taken the details from that account and woven it into a story with real, memorable characters that lingered with me long after finishing the book.

While a lot of modern takes on witch-hunt stories see them as an abuse of power directed against innocent (mostly) women whose only crimes were to be social outcast and possibly have a good knowledge of natural remedies, Sharratt’s take on the story allows an element of fantasy/folklore/magic realism. Some of the Pendle witches — beginning with the matriarch, Bess Southerns, who is the narrator of the first half of the novel — really do have supernatural powers. The “familiar spirit” who gives Bess her powers is not portrayed as a devil, as the witch-hunting religious teachings of the time would have it, but a nature-spirit more similar to the fairies or “little folk” of English folklore. Still, there is a dark side to this witchcraft — it can be used to bless or curse, to cure or kill — and Bess is always aware of the choices she has before her. She, like most of the rest of the alleged witches, is desperately poor and powerless, and it’s easy to see how tempting and heady it is for a person who is powerless by the world’s standards to be given otherworldly power.

Another fascinating strain in this novel is the role that the Protestant Reformation plays in the witch hunts. Through Bess Southerns’ reminiscences of the “good old days” of her youth, we see how the English Catholic church, with its patron saints and feast days, provided more of the pageantry, mysticism, and celebration that poor people needed to give shape and meaning to their lives, and how easily it blended with semi-pagan folk religion of the time. When Protestantism became the religion of the land, the same people who wanted to hunt down and punish witches also wanted to punish secret Papists — and the two were often closely related, as they are in this book.

This was an engaging and fascinating novel.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes, by James Acaster

classicscrapesJames Acaster is my daughter’s favourite comedian, and she asked for this book of his “scrapes” — hilarious/ridiculous incidents allegedly culled from his real life — for Christmas. After picking up her copy to read a little bit I was convinced I had to get this as an audiobook, because with comedians, their own voice almost always makes it better. If you like James Acaster, you have to read (or better yet, hear) this book, and if you’ve never heard of him, you have to check him out. He’s one of my favourites too.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- memoir

The Dark Lady’s Mask, by Mary Sharratt

darkladysmaskAnother excellent foray into the late 16th/early 17th century with Mary Sharratt. This novel takes a real woman — Aemilia Bassano, daughter of an Italian musician at the court of Elizabeth I and a musician and poet in her own right. Bassano had an eventful life even based on the historical evidence available (which, as always for women in past eras, leaves a lot of gaps), which culminated in her being the first English woman to publish a book of her own poetry under her own name. However, the novel goes beyond that, to explore the theory that she might also have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets — not only a friend and lover of the Bard but also a collaborator in some of his plays.

Sharratt points out quite clearly in her Afterward that the identification of Bassano as the “Dark Lady” is a very controversial theory that most scholars do not think at all likely, and admits she chose it simply because it makes a great story — which of course is the liberating joy of writing historical fiction: to be able to choose the version that makes the best story. She certainly creates a memorable character in Aemilia Bassano and believable relationships not just with Shakespeare but with many other people in her life (mostly real historical characters, but also some great fictional ones such as her maids, the three Weir sisters, who might have become transformed into Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters).

I found this novel paired very well with Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink in exploring what possibilities were open to an intelligent, educated woman in the early 17th century, in this case fleshing out the story of a real woman who was one of the few with the determination and opportunity to leave her name inscribed on the pages of English literature, if only in the margins.

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

punjabiwidowsPersonally I don’t see how anyone could avoid picking up a book titled Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, but that might just be me. Oh, and in case you were wondering, while this book is not exactly what the title suggests, there are examples in here of the titular erotic stories, and they are a little explicit, though in a very gentle way, so you might want to be aware of that.

Really, though, this is a fun contemporary novel set in London’s Sikh community. The main character is Nikki, a girl in her early 20s who has an uneasy relationship with her Sikh family and community. She’s not estranged from her family exactly, but her mother and sister are both more traditional that she is (sister Mindi is seeking an arranged marriage, which horrifies Nikki), and Nikki still feels guilty about the fact that her father died of a heart attack soon after she announced she was dropping out of law school: she’s afraid that disappointment over her career choice might have killed him. Nikki still sees her mom and sister, but she doesn’t live with them; she lives in an apartment over the bar where she works while she’s trying to figure out what to do next with her life.

What comes next is unexpected: Nikki ends up teaching a class for Punjabi women at a Sikh temple. She thinks it’s going to be a creative writing course; the women come expecting a basic literacy class. What emerges is something quite different from both, as the women begin sharing stories of forbidden fantasies and Nikki discovers that beneath the sedate and proper exterior of the widow lies a turbulent blend of desire, memory and fantasy.

I’ve called this a “fun” novel and the tone is quite light and often funny, and includes a sweet romance subplot. However, it does deal with some quite heavy and serious issues, particularly around the experience of a young woman named Maya whose tragic death is still a very fresh and recent wound for many people in the community. Maya’s story, which Nikki becomes intrigued with, lays bare many of the pressures faced by women in traditional communities — forced marriage, the pressure to conform, the obsession with a woman’s and a family’s honour. While the overall tone of the book is usually light-hearted, there’s a darkness around the edges that is dealt with seriously.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it if you don’t mind a few vividly-described scenes of sexual fantasy, allegedly written by devout Sikh widows.

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