Entries Tagged as 'More Books For Women'

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Viking, US$25.95

I’d been ignoring this novel. There are so many reasons to not read a book: time, money, a small fit of intellectual laziness, the fact that nobody at Viking saw fit to send BTWOF a review copy…. The reviews I’d read were intriguing but…. And then I received this email from a friend:

“Well, I’m in big trouble now…last night I started reading People of the Book.  I’m now in that familiar, conflicted position of being deep into a book that calls to me day and night…and yet, there’s clients to see, dog to be walked, other aspects of life to return to. What a pleasure, though, to begin a book and immediately love the new world and new characters.”

That tipped me over the edge and did what none of the publisher PR or reviews had managed and I was out the door to the bookstore.  And now People of the Book went on my personal shortlist for Best Book of the 2008.

Here’s the gist: In Bosnia, during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to save one of his museum’s most precious possessions: a beautifully illuminated Haggadah from fifteenth-century Spain. When the book resurfaces in the mid-1990s, rare-book conservator Hanna Heath , a caustic Aussie loner of a heroine, is offered the job of a lifetime: to prepare the manuscript for exhibition. Brooks uses the clues Heath finds during her restoration of the book – a wine stain, a bit of insect wing, salt crystals, a white hair – to lead the reader back in time to unravel the travels and travails of the manuscript, its evolution, and glimpses into the lives of its people.

I admit that there was a brief moment when I found the flashback format irritating. And several moments when I felt that twentieth century values and drama shaped the twentieth century a bit more than I liked. (Yes, that’s a totally contradictory complaint – see my Book Club entry for details. I’m not giving anything away here.) But Brooks’ depictions of ultra-nationalist and religious fanatics and petty tyrants (and ramifications of internalized self-hatred), across the centuries, are brilliant.

Mainstream readers will find a wonderful, rich, layered tale that celebrates and (re-)connects the intertwined cultural histories of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. BTWOF readers will also appreciate her rich vision of women’s lives and history, and her exquisite (re-)writing of women back into the center of all of the eras she touches. I found the book to be a profound meditation on insider and outsider perspectives, on how essential the “outsider” is to history and culture, and also, perhaps, on how quickly the credit for the outsiders’ contributions disappears. Can a writer receive two Pulitzers?

Lesbian content: You have to read for it. And then reflect on it. Subtle. Deep. And, by my definition, exquisite. Don’t spoil it for yourself by skipping over to the Book Group entries.

About the author: Novelist Geraldine Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for March, also has a past life as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She obviously likes to take compound, complex issues and tease them apart, to find their roots, to consider the way the past shapes the present, and to celebrate the rich complex diversity that makes up the world. And she brings it all and, in this case her Aussie upbringing, to her fiction. May there beanother novel, and soon! Meanwhile check out March, her consideration of possibilities of the heart and mind of the (absent) father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – a profound re-reading of the Civil War, slavery, and women’s lives. Year of Wonders, of which Publishers Weekly said: “Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut  is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone.”  Brooks’ nonfiction includes: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and her autobiographical Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over.

Aug. 10, 2008

-Carol Seajay

Coventry

Coventry

by Helen Humphreys

Norton, March 2009, $23.95 cloth, 177 pages

  

Coventry coverSweet, tender, short and not a word awry. And one of the best anti-war novels I’ve ever read. Just what we need, right now, as we’re settling into to Obama’s “next 100 days,” with none of the wars ended and another one emerging in Pakistan. Coventry reminds us what it means to live (work, marry, love, eat, sleep, die and survive) under a rain of bombs.

 

Coventry, for those of you whose WW II history is no better than mine, an industrial city in central England, was the subject of one of the most infamous bombing raids of that war. The terror and destruction were used, in turn, to justify Allied bombings of urban areas – people’s homes – in Germany. Based on accounts of survivors of that brutal night and on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad, it offers an immediate and very current reminder that war begets war, and that bombing, however rationalized, begets terror and death and destruction and, inevitably, more bombs. Something that the survivors of bombings know, instinctively, and something that most Americans, despite 9/11, have yet to understand. Send this book to your Congressman/woman and Senator.

 

But read it first, for the story. If Sarah Waters, in The Night Watch, asked what happened to those fine, brave women (lesbians in that case) who spent the War risking their lives to save others’ lives, In Coventry Humphreys is asking about that spark of connection between women – named or not – that sees them/us through.

 

Humphreys has explored this war before, in her lovely The Lost Garden. Her most recent novel, Wild Dogs, BTWOF’s 2005 Novel of the Year, asks some of the most interesting questions about (lesbian) relationships – about love and work, and about commitment, freedom and passion as it applies to both – of any book I’ve ever read. Humphreys doesn’t believe in easy answers. So I took the liberty of reading her new novel as an exploration of that spark between women that might, in another time or place, evolve into something differently intimate. Or might not. It’s a covenant that’s rarely named and even more rarely honored. Humphreys has given us that gift with Coventry.

 

 

Lexicon:

Perhaps, if we had a word for these relationships, they would more often and more fully honored? Coventry? As in “I had coventry with her.”

 

Trivia:

Coventry was also remembered as the home of Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the town in effort to persuade her husband not to tax the townspeople so heavily, back around 1050. A daring woman if ever there was one.

 

Also just published:

In January Delacorte (Random House/USA), published Humphrey’s short stories, The Frozen Thames, which was published in Canada in 2007. I’m saving them as bribes to get myself to spend time on the exercycle at the gym. (Hey, it worked with Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy and Jumpha Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth!)