Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Three Novels About Being Foreign

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie Alfred A. Knopf  2013 The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther Penguin Group USA 2006 The Outsider by Patricia Gercik CreateSpace. Amazon.com 2014 With refugees in the news these days, I have been reading novels about the experience of being a foreigner. It’s never easy to straddle two world views, different ways of being and thinking. Is it possible for someone to ever truly assimilate in a new land? I am not really sure, and I, as an immigrant to this country, have been here far longer than I have lived anywhere else. How much harder it will be for the millions of displaced refugees who are coming to Europe already traumatized by war. Lately I have been reading three very different books about three very different immigrant experiences. The first is Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. Published  in 2013 and named one of the ten best books of the year, the story features two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, Nigerian teenagers who fall in love but separate when Ifemelu goes to the United States to study, and Obinze tries to start a new life in England. Fifteen years later, they reunite in Nigeria, where they find their experience of  early adulthood in different countries have profoundly changed them. Or have they? I was not convinced that they had. Each character maintains his or her essential personality throughout the novel, with Ifemelu seeming to hold herself superior to others. She sees racial discrimination even in people who are kind to her. Obinze seems to be the moral heart of the book, troubled by the choices he has had to make in a corrupt society. The next book is The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther. It was published in the USA by Penguin Group in 2006, having first been issued in the UK that same year. Crowther is the daughter of an Iranian mother and a British father, which lends authenticity to the story. The novel is structured so that we hear alternate voices of Sara, a thirty something woman whose father is English and whose mother is Maryam, a woman born in a remote village in Iran. The book starts with a violent episode initiated by Maryam, an episode which causes a split with her daughter and spurs Maryam’s return to Iran. Maryam explains that when she was young, to show weakness meant she would be punished. Her punishment for defying her father’s demand that she marry instead of studying nursing is hinted at early on in the book, and revealed shockingly at the end. For whatever reason ( probably to do with Persian food, which I love) I have always been fascinated by Iran, its people and its history. Because Iran is much in the news these days, I read this book to get some insights into the country. The picture painted by the novel shows that Iranian values, even in the nineteen seventies, just before the fall of the Shah, were jarringly different from Western mores. Persian culture as portrayed in this book is much less recognizable than that of Nigeria as written by Adiche. Finally, I am reading The Outsider, but Patricia Gercik. Set in Japan in 1946, 1952 and 1958, this story shows Japan undergoing profound change after its World War II defeat. The narrator is Sarah, a child, six years old when the book begins. She is the daughter of Russian Jews who fled Stalin to China and eventually to Japan during World War II. During the Occupation by the allied powers after the war Japanese society was being utterly transformed. Black marketers and geisha girls, macho Japanese men who still dream of a mighty conquering Japan are contrasted with the sufferings of the ordinary people. White-skinned, blue eyed Sara wants desperately to belong, and finds herself attracted to a ragtag group of Japanese urchins rather than to the Western children who attend the US Army’s school. She is eternally the outsider, loved yet not understood by her parents, who seem to symbolize the eternally exiled, loved yet punished for disobedience by the housekeeper, O’ba, alternately loved and scorned by her Japanese playmates. Throughout the novel, Sarah insists that she is stubborn, and she is certainly bright. Yet, always wanting to belong, she swings from one loyalty to the next. At one point in the novel, Sensei, a key figure in the story, says, “Japanese are emotional, not logical….Disputes are settled outside the courts through relationships. That is the Japanese way.” This sounds so appealing, and yet it sums up the difficulties of foreigners in that culture. By choosing the tell the story in the voice of a child, Gercik avoids the cliche that children adjust to new circumstances easily. Never sentimental or sugar-coating the hardship of life between cultures, this is a remarkable and unusual book. Highly recommended.

The Beekeepers Ball

by Susan Wiggs Harlequin MIRA Hardcover (June 2014) The Rosy Glow of Romance Blame it on Yelp, blame it on the unspoken rule for giving books five star reviews, blame it on the political correctness mania that is sweeping campuses, but it seems that novels these days demand less of readers than they used to. The reader is urged to enjoy rather than to think. In an article in The New York Times Book Review of August 30 2015, author Zoe Heller noted that her graduate students (graduate students!) complained about the required reading if they didn’t like the characters, or if they had any trouble following the story. They were, she said, indignant. It was if the author were a host who had forgotten to make his guests comfortable. I’m assuming these students were reading literary fiction rather than romance. Great literature has always challenged assumptions. That is the purpose of art. It is not the purpose of romance novels, however. The romance writer’s author’s goal is to take the reader away from gritty reality into the realm of dreams. So it is with The Beekeepers Ball, by Susan Wiggs.  This best-selling mass market romance author returns to the idyllic Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California where her heroine, Isabel, is hard at work planning her half-sister’s wedding and the opening of her cooking school. Isabel keeps bees, hence the title, and a beekeeping mishap starts the story, her introduction to bee-allergic biographer Cormac O’Neill. The book is written in chapters that alternate between Denmark under the German occupation and present-day California. This has the affect of reminding readers of their own good fortune just to be living in this time and place and contributes to the feel-good nature of the book. The developing relationship between Isabel and Mac is sweet. In addition, a romance emerges between two  characters in their late seventies, and this is refreshing. Mouth-watering recipes featuring honey dot the pages. As a writer who is still trying to learn the art of writing fiction after years of journalism, I found Wigg’s book structure unusual to say the least. Somehow Wiggs makes the novel work while disobeying the rule to up the conflict and tone down the flashbacks. Moreover, while the flashbacks are active, there is a lot of passivity in the present-day settings. It’s as if Bella Vista is drowning in honey. Since I know the countryside around Sonoma well, I found the descriptions of it and its small, wealthy little towns both accurate and gauzy. It was like looking at them through a veil – and I don’t mean a beekeeper’s veil. First of all, Bella Vista seems to have been under Isabel’s grandfather’s ownership without any visible means of support. Ostensibly an apple farm, the place is being transformed by the work crew into “a destination cooking school.” The only animals on the farm are cats, dogs and bees, which keep the place proudly “critter-free.” Secondly, the renovation is taking place without a whole lot of stress on the part of its owner. Actually, we are told about the stress, but it is not evident. When O’Neill mentions to Isabel that she should put in a swimming pool, she is embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of it herself. Later in the book, we see excavations being dug for a pool. Isabel says, “What’s another hundred grand?”  What indeed? There is no conflict whatsoever between the members of this very odd family, even though the half-sisters have only recently met each other and share a father and an actual birthdate. Think about that, reader – the potential for conflict is huge. It’s just avoided in this book. No one has any financial stress except a minor character, a homeless pregnant teenager whom Isabel takes care of, thus eliminating that conflict. The cooking school renovations are apparently paid for by the sale of family artifacts sold by Tess, the newly discovered half sister, who is a fine arts appraiser and auctioneer. But how this family had any artifacts to sell is not made clear. The grandparents arrived penniless in the US from war-torn Europe. The only real conflicts are in flashback, to the World War II experiences of Isabel’s grandparents. Naturally, the grandparents behaved bravely under extreme danger in that war and despite their hardships, managed to live happily ever after in America.  But who am I to quibble?  Despite its quirks, I read this book compulsively from beginning to end. Ms. Wiggs captured my attention even as I could not help noting the flaws in motivation and causation noted above. Then again, this is the second in the Bella Vista series and having missed the first, perhaps the characters and their backgrounds are more fully fleshed out in the previous book. Romance is romance and it outsells any other genre.  This author is like the welcoming host who makes guests so comfortable they can flop on the couch. This is a good read for the last warm days of summer.

Nora Webster

By Colm Toibin Scribner, 2014 When this book came out a year or so ago, a reviewer described it as a book about a quiet Irish widow, a book in which nothing much happens. So I didn’t pick it up immediately. But now I have. And in the hands of the extraordinary writer Colm Toibin, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn or circumscribed it may seem, is made clear.  As for the claim that “nothing happens” in this novel, that is nonsense. For any young widow left with four children to support on very little money, life could be desperate. How Nora copes, calmly, quietly, is the core of this moving story. Nora Webster, we learn, is a mother of two girls in their late teens and two younger boys. Happily married to Maurice, a popular school teacher, she is shell-shocked at his agonizing death. It seems that both priest and doctor would not allow enough pain-killers for the dying man because it might damage his heart. This subtle dig at religious rigidity is all that Toibin allows himself in this novel. In fact, Nora’s greatest support comes from two religious women, a Sister Thomas, who seems like a busy-body, but offers non-judgmental love at every turn, and a former nun who becomes Nora’s singing teacher. Writers of fiction are often advised to create characters that readers will like. Toibin does nothing so obvious. He offers us Nora, who is prickly and defensive, who forbids herself the expression of much emotion, whose own mother preferred her sisters and sons-in-law to Nora, and who, on the surface, does not offer much comfort to her grieving children. The girls were away at school, but the younger boys were placed with Nora’s aunt while Nora tended to her dying husband. During this time the older boy, Donal, developed a stutter. Her aunt asks Nora why she never once checked on her kids the whole time their father was in hospital. Nora has no convincing answer except to say her time was fully occupied. Donal becomes the focus of Nora’s anxiety, though this is never stated out loud. She tries quiet activities to make the children feel life can continue normally, like taking them for an outing to Dublin, like renting a caravan for a summer vacation to make up for her having to sell the family beach cottage, like allowing her sister-in-law to build a dark-room so Donal can develop his photographs. Nora’s gradual opening up, like a flower, to allow others to help her is the story arc of this book. Her husband’s sister finds a boarding school for Donal, a Christian Brothers school with a photography club and Nora lets her sister-in-law pay for the tuition. Like most kids, the boy is lonely at first and Nora senses, when she visits him, that he wants to come home. Like Nora, he is guarded about his feelings and she won’t let him articulate them. Instead, she promises, simply, to visit him every weekend. Later, her second daughter, Aine, becomes involved in student politics, and is caught up in a demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday. She cannot be found. The family looks for her and in the end, Nora says she’s going home. (The girl is fine.)In these two instances, in which Nora demonstrates the opposite of helicopter parenting, we see that she is in fact a superb parent. She allows her children a chance to build their own resilience. The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans three years. These were momentous years in Ireland, the beginning of The Troubles, in which Northern Ireland became the focus of religious and political factionalism and the IRA became active. They were also momentous years for women. Feminism is never mentioned in this book. In fact, Nora, who is forced to return to work as a widow at the same firm she worked for before she married, regrets the loss of her freedom. While in the end she masters her bookkeeping job, we sense that she never enjoys it, hates the web of office politics, and wishes she could have her old life back. Nora says, “Never once, in the 21 years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration.”  While one reviewer of this book found this to be self-deceptive, I found this comment by Nora to be very believable. There was, and still is, a sub-set of women who love the fulfillment of being able to create a full-time loving and secure home for their families. And this is why Colm Toibin is such a marvelous writer. He never allows himself to be seduced by current trends. Once again he has pulled off a masterpiece.

Snowfed Waters

By Jane Wilson Howarth Vicarious Travel, 3 edition, 2014 Amazon Digital Services My cousin’s son, David, a twenty-something with a sense of adventure, is in Nepal. He had just started working on a genetics project when the earthquake struck in May this year. In response to pleas from his family to return to the safety of home, he refused because he felt he could be of help where he was. Such is the lure of Nepal, its beauty and its people. David’s adventure reminded me of a book I first read when it was issued in January 2014. Written by English physician Jane Wilson-Howarth, the novel tells the story of Sonia, an Englishwoman who is escaping a failed marriage and the loss of a job, her Nepali guide, Rekraj, her landlady/host, Guliya, and Moti, a teenager with surprising wisdom. The story hinges on cultural misunderstandings, until a natural disaster shows a strength of character that springs from deep within and crosses the cultural divide. The writing is wonderfully atmospheric. One can almost smell the woodsmoke and the cumin, see the snowy mountains, feel both heat and cold. The author drew on her experience as a doctor in Nepal to write the book, which is a fictional follow-up to a memoir, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows. That book has recently been published in India, following English and American editions. The vivacity of the author’s personality her passion for life, and her humanity come across in this book. Once Wilson-Howarth draws the reader into the world she shows us, it is hard to put the book down. Highly recommended.

Eating On The Wild Side: The Missing Link To Optimum Health

By Jo Robinson Little Brown & Company, The Hachette Group, New York 2013 Did you know that eating a humble can of tomato paste can help protect you from sunburn? This factoid I learned from this fascinating  book by health and food writer Jo Robinson Robinson quotes from a 2000 study by German researchers led by Wilhelm Stahl which found that tomato paste protects against UV rays because of its concentrated amounts of lycopene – an ingredient manufactured by tomatoes to protect themselves from the sun.  Of course, all tomatoes are good for you, but it seems that cooking tomatoes and eating canned tomatoes which have been heated in the process of canning makes the lycopene more “biovailable.” According to Robinson, carrots, as well as tomatoes, become more nutritious if sautéed or steamed (not boiled). Whole carrots, cooked before being cut up, retain their beta-carotene better, and make three times the amount of beta-carotene available to the diner than raw carrots. Corn and beets, too, are healthier if cooked. All this somewhat belies the title of this book. “Wild” implies untamed, unhybridized and certainly not GMO-modified plants for consumption. But Robinson, who has researched the wild origin of edible plants, points out that hunter-gatherers knew how to cook. Indeed, wild-lambs quarters,(Chenopodium album) a leafy weed that thrives world wide but grows particularly well in northern California, was steamed by Native Americans to cure stomach aches as well as added to soups, stew and eaten raw. And guess what? That quinoa you pay a premium for in the store is actually the gathered seeds of domesticated lambs quarters. “Know what you’re eating,” is the mantra of this book. Whether selecting plants for your garden, or shopping at the farmer’s market or the local supermarket, you will find this book useful. Armed with the knowledge from this engaging book, you’ll be able to select those fruits and vegetables which maintain the most nutrition, and then you’ll be able to prepare them in the healthiest way. Highly recommended. A book to buy, not to borrow.

Saving Gracie

By Jill Teitelman Freestyle Press, Boston 2012 When Ruth Kooperman tells her friend Grace that her boyfriend proposed in the hardware store, her friend has a question. “Which aisle were you in? Grace wants to know. “Plumbing or electrical?” So goes the wise-cracking in this novel that reads like a memoir. It’s a first novel but clearly not the first literary effort by Boston-based writer Jill Teitelman. If it weren’t so funny, it could be called “The Baby Boomers Lament” because the protagonist, Ruth, opens the novel with the memorable lines, “Why didn’t I ask where the Women’s Lib train was going before I jumped on?”  Approaching forty, Ruth has spent her adulthood thus far in gobbling up experiences – in travel, in jobs as interesting as they are short-term, and in boyfriends who share the same quality. She knows perfectly well that she’s short-changed her self-esteem by never letting go of the financial safety rope dangled before her by her parents, even as she cannot forgive her boorish father for his constant put-downs of her every move. No wonder she has never found the right man – each prospect her father meets gets the brush-off. Not only can her father not stand her friends, he belittles her for being so stupid as to select them – or whatever she is currently doing in life. But it seems that Ruth does have a talent for friendship with other women. In Rhonda, and later in Grace, Teitelman creates a portrait of besties through which Ruth can find her kindest self even as she envies her friends for their stability and contentment – states of being that she somehow seems to unable to achieve herself. She is nothing if not critical of herself as well as Jake, who becomes the father of the child she wants so desperately, and later of Marty, the man she marries at the age of fifty. Teitelman’s depiction of Ruth’s son, Joey, is also delightful. A terrific mother, she shows single motherhood in all its difficulties and joys. More self-aware than most women, possibly because she delayed motherhood so long, Ruth can sometimes irritate because she is discontented so much of the time. But then, her best friend gets sick, and Ruth discovers what grace truly means. Her friend’s ability to find joy in a simple life and to endure a terrible and unfair fate catapults Ruth into another plane of knowing. At times this book reads like a journal, and so it is not surprising to learn that Teitelman started it as a memoir, then turned it into fiction. Not your typical debut novel, I found it quite a page-turner.

What Alice Forgot

By Liane Moriarty Kindle Edition, Penguin Books (first published 2009) Have I said that I am a fan of Liane Moriarty? I repeat. I am a huge fan of the Australian writer Liane Moriarty. She’s a prolific author – has written at least six novels and each one seems to climb to the best seller lists as soon as it is released in the US. Liane writes about everyday ordinary people – all right, everyday, upper middle class people in the suburbs of Sydney. She writes about mothers of school age children, and most often her books have several interweaving plot lines. Her characters are quite often deluded about their own and others’ secret lives, are very relatable and often funny. What Alice Forgot is the premise as well as the title of this book. Alice hit her head in a gym accident and when she wakes up, thinks it is 1998 instead of 2008. Was the previous century any better than the present one? It was simpler, certainly, in Alice’s muddled mind, and perhaps in Moriarty’s. (The author is almost the same age as her character.) In 1998 Alice was happily in love with her husband Nick, and pregnant with her first child. In 2008, she is amazed to find that she has to live with three rambunctious children, who people say are her own. She and Nick are separated and going to divorce. She doesn’t want this divorce at all, she thinks, as her memory comes back in sparks, like faulty wiring. She appears to have changed in the intervening ten years, and not just because of motherhood. As Alice’s memory returns in fits and starts we understand the stresses in her life that led to the present day. There is a lifetime of sudden loss in these memories, but just as we begin to think that Alice might be a tad self-indulgent in her sorrows, (Her husband has to work so hard!, being thin is so important!)  we get into the parallel story of her sister, Elisabeth, who is undergoing fertility treatment, and has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. Then there is Alice and Elisabeth’s ‘honorary grandmother” Frannie, who loves the girls as her own. Her loss is even greater than theirs. It all adds up to a sympathetic story, and this is what saves Moriarty’s characters. After all, a novel has to be about conflict and struggle. And on the surface, all Moriarty’s characters live in a world of privilege, Australian style – plenty of money, good public schools, sunny beaches accessible to everyone, welcoming coffee shops on every corner, and people living in a web of close family relationships. Still, she writes about serious subjects with humanity and humor and keeps the reader guessing about the ending till the end.

Cleopatra’s Molecules in About Place Journal

About Place Journal is a literary journal with a difference. Published by The Black Earth Institute, it is dedicated to “reforging the links between art and spirit, earth and society.”  Each twice-yearly issue is themed. My story, The Dog Catcher of Jabiru, appeared in the November 2015 issue. My essay, Cleopatra’s Molecules was published in the May 2015 issue. Since it came out last week, I have been amazed at the response. People have plugged it on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve been receiving emails asking for permission to send it on. Apparently the ideas I was working out as I wrote the piece have been helpful to people who have lost a loved one. I’m glad about that. If you’d like to read it, please go to http://aboutplacejournal.org. A Moment In Time We seem to be in a moment, people. That is, I think we may be in a time when people are really starting to think about our place in the universe in a different way. As Cleopatra’s Molecules lay on editor John Briggs’ desk awaiting publication in About Place Journal, I received my latest copy of Orion Magazine.  In the May/June 2015 issue is an interview by philosopher and environmentalist Kathleen Dean Moore with Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, who directs Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.  It is entitled “A Roaring Force from One Unknowable Moment: The story of the universe has the power to change history.” Moore opens with this bold statement: “The World has arrived at a pivot point in history. You could drive a nail through this decade and the future of the planet would swing in balance.” She proposes three things to tip the scales and the third is to “change the story about who we are, we humans – not the lords of all creation, but lives woven into the complex interdependencies of a beautiful, unfolding planetary system.” Cosmic evolution – what a beautiful thought. To read the full article, click on https://orionmagazine.org/2015/05/a-roaring-force-from-one-unknowable-moment/ Do read Orion. Best of all, subscribe. www.orionmagazine.org.

Glitter and Glue

By Kelly Corrigan Ballantine, 2014 Mothers matter. They really do. I have to admit, the topic of this memoir – recollections of the author’s time as a nanny to a family in Australia some twenty or more years ago – did not inspire me to pick it up when it was released last year. But this is Kelly Corrigan. She can write. I realized this about two minutes into the book, which I picked up at an airport bookshop. It was of those decisions you make when you have about five minutes to catch the plane and your Kindle is not charged. I am glad I did not have more time that day, or I would never have read this brilliantly constructed, humorous, tear-inducing book.  Kelly Corrigan does not mock, however gently, the foreign culture in which she found herself, as so many “American Abroad” books do. Indeed, Corrigan describes the Sydney suburb in which she found herself as “basically indistinguishable from the one where I grew up.” Nor does she satirize a middle-class family who had to hire a nanny. Because that is not the point. This book is about motherhood. The Tanner children, seven-year-old Millie and five year-old Martin, are motherless because Ellen Tanner had recently died of cancer. Besides her widower, John, in the household also are Evan, Ellen’s twenty-one year old son from a former marriage, and Pop, Ellen’s father, who keeps to himself but does the family laundry. Kelly notes the common difficulties of step-family relationships within the family, as all is revealed gradually. But she never judges, and she weaves what she learns of the family’s profound grief and fragility after Ellen’s loss with a new appreciation of her own mother. Corrigan’s mother Mary is a sharp-tongued character, whose pithy remarks demonstrate her no-nonsense, do-the-right-thing values. Such a mother would naturally be in conflict with a strong-minded young woman like Kelly. Yet, as the book develops, and Kelly begins to understand the depth of the Tanner family’s loss and their courage in just putting each foot forward, one after the other, day after day, she starts to appreciate what her mother gave her. The last twenty five pages of the book reflect on this as Kelly Corrigan recalls her own bout with breast cancer when her children were small. As Kelly Corrigan notes, “Mothers are everywhere.” Except when they’re not. Mother’s Day is coming up. Cherish yours. She’s just irreplaceable.

Literacy and Longing in L.A.

By Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack Bantam Dell, 2013 We know right off the bat that Dora, the protagonist in this charming novel, is going to have trouble when, in the Preface, we learn that when she was seven her inebriated mother drove the car, with her children in it, off a bridge. So we are not surprised to find her, in chapter 1, wallowing in despair after separating from her second husband.  Dora literally wallows- in a hot, deep bath, where she spends all weekend reading novels. Ah, I was hooked. A heroine who loves to read. Not only do literary quotes head each chapter, there are literary quotations throughout the book, which, in case we don’t recognize them, are acknowledged in footnotes. Footnotes! And at the back of the book there is a seven page bibliography. But Dora is no geeky bookworm. She’s witty, attractive, bored by the blind dates her friends set up, and falls in lust with a fellow booklover. He works at the local bookstore, but has aspirations to be a screenwriter. “It’s that L.A. hyphenate thing – no one is really what they’re doing. Everything is just temporary until their real career starts,” her sister remarks. But Dora is snowed by Fred’s erudition. “My god. Just kill me now,” she thinks when he quotes Dorothy Parker. Dora, however, has no career to speak of.  The story touches on issues of class, with extreme Hollywood wealth contrasting with the situation of ordinary Californians. Dora eventually emerges from her bubble (bath) to learn what is important in life. The love of literature is the unusual theme that underpins this fine novel. If the characters lived in New York this would not surprise but it was a delightful departure from the norm to read about book addicts in Tinseltown. This is the first book written by the duo of Mack and Kaufman, a film and television producer and former Los Angeles Times staff writer, respectively. (They’ve since written two other romantic comedies.) They have an intimate knowledge of the worlds they write about, and Literacy and Longing in L.A. moves along as if written by one voice. It is quite a remarkable feat.