Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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The Book of Colours

By Robyn Cadwallader

Harper Collins, 2018


Imagine a world without printed or digital book. Imagine a world where books were rare and
precious things, commissioned one by one by the nobility, like works of art. In these books the
story, usually a religious one, becomes intimately connected with the illuminated pictures that
surround the letters on the page.

Imagine being the artist who illustrated these books.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, as Robyn Cadwallader shows us in this novel, the art
of illuminating manuscripts was moving beyond the monasteries and into the secular world. In
small workshops, closely associated with scribes and stationers who provided the pages of text,
young men apprenticed under master craftsmen. Like all creative businesses, the work was
dependent on commissions, and in this war-torn, famine-riven century in England, the book trade
was not one to make a practitioner wealthy.

The atelier of John Dancaster, a master limner, or illuminator, is the setting for this fascinating
story. Dancaster is assisted by his wife, Gemma, their son, Nick, who is learning to mix paints,
Ben, an apprentice who is about to graduate to become a journeyman, and Will, who arrives in
London looking for work. Will has mysteriously left his own apprenticeship with a master
craftsman in Cambridge just short of producing his “master piece,” which would have enabled
his graduation to skilled artisan. A fine master piece from a student of a famous limner would be
the ticket to employment. Will must now prove his worth in a strange city and workshop.
There are three point of view characters in this story – Will, Gemma, and Mathilda, the widow of
a nobleman who has just died fighting King Edward II. She’s commissioned a book from the
Dancaster workshop as a symbol of the family’s status. But her husband’s death fighting a rebel
cause makes him a traitor and her fate unclear.

Through the characters and the changing relationships between them, Cadwallader explores class
and gender. Through Gemma’s eyes, resentment burns at how women, who might be as skilled
as their husbands and fathers in the trade, were not acknowledged. They were allowed to
supervise the apprentices, and Gemma is writing a book called The Art of Illumination. This
book within a book is fascinating. It describes how to make an illuminated manuscript. These
excerpts, and the entire novel, capture the joy and the frustration of creative work; the absolute
need to do it, to be original, to express something new within a set of traditions, and to strive for
the highest quality.

Robyn Cadwallader’s first novel was The Anchoress, a story of a religious hermit. Also set in
medieval times, that book questions what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated religious
and secular world. This second novel expands that thought through a sympathetic rendering of
male characters as well, and contrasts the ideals of renunciation and acceptance vs. action
involving danger and change. This is riveting history with characters whose traits register today.

Cascade

By Maryanne O’Hara Penguin 2012 In the mid-nineteen thirties, the growing city of Boston needed a secure water supply. To create the Quabbin Reservoir, a thriving small town to the west of the city was submerged. This novel about the threat of the flood to the town, aptly and fictionally named Cascade, tells a story about an artist who is married to a steady but boring man, her desire to paint rather than to have children, and her affair with a fellow artist. Fundamentally, it is about the tension between the need to create art that lives beyond the life of the artist, and the choices the artist makes to achieve that. Set in The Depression, with World War II looming, and anti-Semitism rampant even in America, especially in a small town where gossip runs rife, this story aches with a sense of impending loss before, during and after Dez Hart’s affair with a Jewish peddler who is also a serious artist. Dez’s late father had built a Shakespearian playhouse in the town, and its fate becomes crucial to the story. Dez uses her artistic skills to bring attention to the damage that will be done by flooding people’s homes and farms, and to save the playhouse. The dilemma of a woman artist who cannot help but paint and sees that having a baby will end her budding career is another major theme of the book. I loved 0’Hara’s descriptions of how an artist paints, the conception and the execution. The author’s research into working lives, transportation, communication, housekeeping, and the role of women in the thirties also fascinated me. Minor characters, such as Abby, Dez’s best friend, are well drawn. The lure of the big city versus the security of life in a small town is also articulated well, though only from the point of view of Dez, who wants to escape Cascade. Given the material, this story could be much darker than O’Hara makes it. So many suffered extremely during The Depression and in World War II, and with divorce so difficult to attain and artistic success for a women equally difficult to achieve, Dez’s troubles are overcome a tad too easily. That’s partly because 0’Hara makes Asa, Dez’s unwanted husband, a thoroughly decent person. One never forgets, in this story, that Dez has choices unavailable to others. Still, an historical novel set in a recognizable place, dealing with the real dilemmas of the day, always makes enjoyable reading. It kept me turning pages, wanting to know what happens next.

A Return To The Classics

Roman Mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens, Tunis, Tunisia, c. 100s CE


The Odyssey

By Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson
W.W. Norton, 2017

Over the past several years, this space has reviewed books by women. Women’s fiction, if you like, though I take a broader view of this than the definition decided upon by the Women Fiction Writers Association, of which of I am a long-time member.

That definition is that women’s fiction books describe the protagonist’s emotional journey.

That’s all fine and good, but novels of all kinds except for thrillers, crime, and typical romance novels, do exactly that. The character’s emotional journey is what gets the reader immersed in the story, whether it be historical fiction or a mystery that must be solved in order for the protagonist to move forward psychologically.

In my own writing, I’ve learned, I can take a protagonist only so far without her uncovering a hidden truth. How little we understand other people, and how far we have to go to understand ourselves is not just a literary concern. It underpins the profession of psychiatry and is the basis of philosophy. The “hero’s journey” should be an interior one for it to have meaning.

The past couple of months I’ve taken a break from reading the lighter fare that makes up much commercial fiction, women’s or otherwise. Inspired by a sense of shortened time after visiting a brother with a severe illness, I’ve turned to the classics. The hero’s journey persists in literature, and the most famous is The Odyssey, written over two thousand years ago by a Greek person or persons collectively named Homer.

In November and through December, I read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I’ve attempted the book before, most notably with Robert Fagles’ version. I never got far. But Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate into English Homer’s story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War, has given us a fresh and lively version. The poem, in her translation, is immensely readable and appealing. It retains a poetic rhythm and has exactly the same number of lines as the original, a feat in itself.

At the end of her long introduction, the translator draws attention to the major theme of the book: “the duties and dangers involved in welcoming foreigners into one’s home.” The need to explore, and therefore the need to throw oneself on the mercy of strangers is central to the story. So is the risk to the host. The epic poem moves back and forward between the adventures of Odysseus and the trials of his wife and son, awaiting his return.

In her notes, Wilson talks about the central role of Penelope, Odysseus’s long-suffering wife. She’s yearned for many years for him to come home and is besieged by suitors competing for her hand. She puts them off by weaving a tapestry, telling the suitors that when it is finished she will decide. At night she unweaves what she has done. She’s in a perpetual situation of waiting, both for Odysseus to return, and for her son, Telemachus, a teenager whose father left
when he was an infant, to grow up and protect her. In other words, she represents female inaction as opposed to male action. But Wilson points out that she does act in her own defense, though in a hidden way. Penelope’s wiliness, as well as her fidelity, have been the characteristics she’s been remembered for down the centuries. In her society, she can only achieve her goal by deception. Women’s wiles have traditionally been labeled as duplicitous. But if Penelope had not deceived her unwanted suitors, she would have been unfaithful, a much more serious “crime.” Therefore, in one reading of the story, as a woman she cannot win. But Wilson says that in fact her action is crucial to the narrative and allows the denouement of the poem.

Odysseus, on the other hand, slashes his way through the world, killing and raping and lying. His wiliness, too, allows him to survive, but he is regarded as the classic hero, simply because he stops at nothing to get home, and once home, takes revenge shocking in its savagery. The violence is no doubt one of the secrets to the poem’s timelessness. That, and the random nature of events, which in Homer’s day was attributed to supernatural beings, and still may be so today.

Recently, several women have written novels based on characters from The Odyssey. Madeline Miller’s wonderful Circe (reviewed here in July, 2018) is an example. I loved her evocation of the sorceress Circe as a professional herbalist and her frustration as a single mother trying to
get her work done while soothing a crying infant. And I was fascinated by Miller’s depiction of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca and his slaughter of the suitors as the action of a psychopath. Madeline Miller’s first book was the marvelous The Song of Achilles, the story of Achilles and Patroclus, from The Iliad. The Trojan War is seen from a woman’s point of view in Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire, which is about Briseis, the priestess captured as a slave by Achilles. The great Pat Barker also has a new book about Briseis, which I must read. That is The Silence of the Girls: A Novel.

So, classic literature as re-interpreted by women writers throws up a different viewpoint. I can’t wait to read more.

Sylvia’s Farm: The Journal of an Improbable Shepherd

By Sylvia Jorrin

Bloomsbury, 2004

As someone who grew up devouring tales of the dairy farm on which my grandmother was born, I’ve always enjoyed stories about country life. And, for 25 years I lived in a semi-rural town in New England, a town where everyone knew everyone else, where you had to have lived there a couple of generations not to be considered a newcomer. Neighbors in that little town in which I raised my children pastured sheep, goats, alpacas and chickens, all kept in order by numerous dogs.

So, browsing last week in a second hand bookstore, I came across an intriguing book with a picture of an older woman giving a bottle to a lamb, its brothers and sisters crowding in to catch stray drops. The book was Sylvia’s Farm.

Sylvia – her writing style immediately invites intimacy – bought an eighty-five acre farmstead in upstate New York a quarter century ago, complete with an enormous nineteenth century house, carriage house, and barn. Before long she found herself the owner of over a hundred sheep, a cow, a goat, and numerous chickens and geese. She also gardens, from which she cooks and bakes, and grows gooseberries and currants commercially. From her sheep’s wool she knits, and she is interested in stenciling, and embarks on endless renovations of her buildings. Oh, and did I mention that she also writes? She’s written a regular column for a local paper and published over a thousand articles on farming. And she runs her livestock farm by herself.

I have my share of domestic skills, but a single day in Sylvia’s life, as told in these essays, made me exhausted just reading it.

The climate of Delaware County, New York, is bitter in winter. In a chapter where Sylvia describes rescuing newborn lambs abandoned by their mother, she writes that she put them in a sack on her back and crawled on hands and knees over the treacherous ice from barn to warm kitchen, thus saving them – and herself – from death by falling and freezing. To think that she lives on the farm alone, and handles all these dramas with only occasional help from friends, family, and neighbors, gave me chills.

Anyone who thinks that farm life is unadventurous will be disabused of the notion by reading this book. For all the drama, the urgent need to fulfill the numerous daily tasks, and an income that is dependent on weather, the inner satisfaction Sylvia has gained from this literally down to earth lifestyle comes across on the page in captivating, lyrical prose.

Amazing and inspiring.

The After Wife

By Cass Hunter

Trapeze, Hachette Book Group, 2018



For a creeped-out experience, imagine this: Your wife dies and you and your daughter are devastated. Then your brilliant computer-scientist wife’s work partner comes to the funeral with an instruction – come to the lab immediately. When you arrive, you are confronted with a life-like robot who is the spitting image of your dead wife, Rachel. “She” is called i Rachel, and she is programmed to come home and live with the family.

This story captivated me on so many levels. First it is a very contemporary story about artificial intelligence. That robots will be built to resemble humans and will carry out many of the tasks we take for granted is not a matter of if, but when. That they will not be able to empathize, though scientists may do their best to make that happen, is also likely. At least in the near future.

In The New York Times on Friday October 19, a computer engineer, Yves Behar, is quoted as saying “we should imagine how A.I. can be both smart and compassionate, a combination that can solve the most important human problems…We should be thinking about A.I. in new contexts – the newborn of the overworked parent, the cancer patient who needs round-the-clock attention, and the child with learning and behavioral difficulties. A.I holds great promise for them.”

What? A baby needs human attention, as has been shown over and over again in neo-natal ICUs. A child’s learning experience can be warped by technology, as any parent knows. As for the cancer patient, that horse is already out of the barn; technology may save life for a time, but patients have repeatedly pleaded for more human interaction from their doctors. So, A.I. is not just science fiction. It is already upon us.

Cass Hunter, though, is not writing science fiction. Or not just science fiction. As if to prove her point about i Rachel, her human characters demonstrate the full gamut of emotion. We really feel the grief of Aidan, the husband, and Chloe, the daughter, of the real Rachel. Minor characters are fleshed out and have idiosyncrasies that make them believable. Ms. Hunter has such an ability to get inside her character’s point of view that we actually feel what it would be like to experience a catastrophic aneurysm. That fatal incident sets the story in motion. It is also a brilliant authorial choice. By getting inside the real Rachel’s head at the beginning of the story we empathize with her and can understand (sort of) why, anticipating her untimely death, she tried to “help” her family cope with her absence. But people are never replaceable.

This is a brilliant piece of work, well written and thought provoking. Artificial intelligence: is it a boon or a horror story?

What do you think?

Sonora

By Hannah Lillith Assadi

Soho Press Inc., 2018


This debut novel was an honoree in the National Book Foundation’s 4 under 35, and a finalist in the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham prize for debut fiction.

My interest was piqued because the first half of the novel is set in Phoenix, my adopted home, and because the book is about friendship between girls. Would this author be a local Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels traced the closeness of lifetime female friendship and rivalry?

Assadi is lyrical in describing the desert in winter rain, when the creosote sends an intoxicating smoky smell into the air. Much of the book reads like memoir, overlaid with mysticism. In 1995, the Desert Mountain High School, which Assadi herself attended, was built, encroaching on native land. The book’s narrator is called Ahlam, and, just like the author, her father is Palestinian and her mother Israeli. So, in this novel, a sense of dislocation pervades. “The high school, Assadi writes, “was erected on Yavapai land. This was normal. The entire city was erected on someone else’s land. My father told me to be vigilant.”

Ahlam is not vigilant. She falls into teenage friendship with Laura, at first the stronger character. Laura transgresses at every turn, and drags Ahlam with her. The two meet an older man, Dylan, an artist, while freshmen in high school, and he remains in touch with Laura from New York, inviting them to visit. After leaving school, the eighteen-year-olds move to the Big Apple to pursue artistic careers and live with Dylan.

For the inexperienced girls, New York is a vortex of drugs and sordid parties. Laura slips further into dependency, while Ahlam seems unable to help her, to leave, or to confront Dylan, Laura’s enabler. The book weaves back and forth between Ahlam’s despairing life in the big city and her
parents, lonely, sick and depressed, back in Phoenix. The lack of a moral compass for these girls is apparent, and, as if to explain this, Ahlam several times refers to her parent’s warring backgrounds, their constant fighting, and the way they pray differently. The hard edges of everything inflict wounds on Ahlam. Rarely have I read a novel where the narrator seems so ill at ease in the world.

And yet, Hannah Lillith Assadi is a writer of great intelligence, insight, and with the ability to describe our changing world deftly. Here, for example is how she describes Phoenix: “The desert, once dark, is slurred with new lights, traffic on the freeway, sirens in the distance.” The word ‘slurred” is exactly how the rushing traffic looks on the 101 at night. Given its usual meaning, which refers to the sound of drunken speech, this word takes on significance, as Laura, and to a lesser extent Ahlam, trash their health and beauty in the pursuit of sophistication and “civilization.” The book is an elegy for an innocence that never really was.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:
http://booksbywomen.org/how-childhood-reading-shapes-identity-by-margaret-ann-spence/

The Pumpkin Eater & The Bell Jar

The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classic, The New York Review of Books, 2011
Originally published, 1962

The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Harper, Reprint Edition 2015
Originally published, 1963

The sixties seem to be having a moment. After all, it is fifty years since that fatal year of 1968, when students all over the world rebelled. They’d had it up to here with call-ups for The Vietnam War, with parents who seemed to live in the dark ages, with college parietal rules, with laws that acted like scolds. The right to use contraception was not recognized by the US Supreme Court until 1965 – and then only for married couples. Women could not apply for a credit card without a male guarantor. Abortion was illegal.

When I told a young man I know about these restrictions, particularly on women, he was aghast. “It sounds like Saudi Arabia,” he said. Indeed. The times, they needed a-changin’. My work in progress begins in that energetic, crazy, and hopeful time. I’ve been reading a lot to research the period. I’m not up to that era quite yet. The books I have been reading lately are about the first half of the sixties. It was an entirely different time, it seems, from the public turmoil of the second half.

But the turmoil was there, seething away inside, for women. This is the take-away from each of these books. When I saw the 1964 movie, The Pumpkin Eater I was shocked, absolutely astonished, at the subject matter. The movie starred Anne Bancroft, who played a woman who, pregnant again for the umpteenth time, was persuaded by her husband and her mother to have an abortion. This was apparently legal at the time in England, where the movie was set, but illegal elsewhere, and the mere word was unmentionable in polite discourse. The movie followed the book almost exactly, and the book, according to its author, followed her own life almost exactly. The events “are all true…all real”, she said in her afterword. Tellingly, the number of children the author/writer had is never exactly spelled out, and only one, Dinah, is given a name. This is a portrait of a woman in the midst of what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And most interestingly, everyone, including her husband, her mother and her psychiatrist, blames “Mrs. Armitage”, the protagonist, for her pregnancies. As if she created them on her own.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Boston-born poet, Sylvia Plath. The story starts with the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s internship at a New York women’s magazine. If it has the ring of truth, that’s because Sylvia Plath began her literary career here. The first half of the book is lively and very funny. The second is darker, chronicling the protagonist’s descent into depression, the suffocating bell jar of the title. It’s tragic in that one knows Plath’s ending. She took her own life in 1963, when she was the mother of toddlers, felt trapped, and was resentful of her estranged poet husband. The extraordinary gift of this novel is its immediacy, allowing the reader to actually feel how it is to become suicidal. While the book was published in January 1963 (Plath died a month after its publication) it is set ten years earlier. There is a prescient paragraph in the early part of the book when the editor of the magazine to which Esther is apprenticed laments the difficulty that faces her when she must have lunch with two writers. The magazine had bought six stories from the man, only one from the woman. The implication is that the nineteen-year-old Esther knew that both were equally talented.

The theme uniting these two books is that both authors were professionally very successful, with Sylvia Plath achieving world-wide fame. But both were defined in their own minds and the minds of others as mired in domestic difficulties, difficulties their husbands, who were also writers, did not recognize, let alone acknowledge.

I leave political commentary to others. But these two books made me realize that the efforts of our very slightly later generation to enhance the rights of women did reach fruition, even if many obstacles to equality remain. The societal changes of the sixties and later enabled so many of us to lead more fulfilling lives.

In this present moment, we must not let these gains slip away.