The Mountains Sing–Learn About Vietnam

The Mountains Sing

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

Que Mai was born in northern Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of the war known globally as the Vietnam War and called the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation by the government of Northern Vietnam.  She has authored 11 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.   The Mountains Sing is her first book written in English.  She draws upon her family’s history and her extensive research to tell the story of the Tran family of Nghe An Province in north central Vietnam.  She brings to the reader the experiences of this family as it lives through a long period of great turmoil which left this reader with a new perspective of the people of this area and the struggles they have endured. 

The reader meets Grandma Dieu Lan (born 1920 to Mr and Mrs Tran) and granddaughter Huong (born 1960 to Grandma’s daughter Ngoc and her husband) in 1972 in Ha Noi where Grandma is a school teacher and Huong a student.  They are anxiously awaiting the war to be over and for Grandma’s six children and families to be reunited and returned to them.  While Grandma and Huong are hiding in a cave to shelter from the Dec 18, 1972 major extended bombing of Ha Noi, Grandma begins telling Huong the story of her family starting in 1930. Her stories which, progress in time from 1930, alternate with Huong’s narration of the family’s story moving forward from that day in the cave.

Grandma Dieu Lan was born into a land owning farming family.  All the members of the family worked taking care of animals and working in the field.  She marries, begins having a family, and is happy. But change is underway.  She tells Huong about the family trials during the Japanese occupation, the Great Famine, and the Viet Minh’s execution of the Land Reform.  During the Land Reform, her family is torn apart and then works to recover itself.  The Vietnam War disperses the family again as the sons are drafted to fight with the Viet Minh and Huong’s mother, a doctor, leaves to find her husband.  Huong’s narration covers the period of the war through letters and diaries and discussions with her mother and uncles after they return from the war.  Her narration also describes her family’s post-war period through 1980 as they work to find a new normalcy in the newly united county under communist rule.

The author makes several choices that enables the reader’s engagement and gives the reader a sense of the family’s culture.  As with many families with six children, life paths the children take, freely chosen or not, can cause substantial family conflict and this is true for Grandma’s children.  Que Mai sprinkles the text with Vietnamese words and uses a variety of approaches to provide their definition.  Several characters, and in particular Grandma Dieu Lan, use proverbs to express their feelings—and to help buoy spirits in difficult times. 

Que Mai uses her book to make clear that the Vietnamese people are more than some of the impressions that have been suggested—poor, illiterate farmers.   Grandma Dieu Lan’s farming parents believed in education—they hired a tutor for her brother AND her.  She becomes a teacher.  Her children are educated and Huong attends school and wins a place at a premier high school.  She gives Huong books as presents including a Vietnamese translation of “Little House on the Prairie”.  This book allows Huong to understand that Americans, who have pledged to bomb her people into submission, also work hard and love their family.  Both Huong and an uncle see young American soldiers taken prisoner or killed by the Viet Minh army and wonder about the humanity of these American solider and how their family members would be treated if they were prisoner of the American enemy.  Huong wonders at one point if people read more about each other if they would find other ways to solve their problems besides war. 

Que Mai uses Huong’s description of her journaling after an uncle’s death to explicitly show some of her themes regarding war:  “I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her.  I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive or dead.”  But her book covers more than the Vietnam War and introduces the reader to a broader history of the struggles of these people who have been occupied by foreigners for centuries and whose struggles continued after their expulsion.  In the final chapter, Huong and her family are at Grandma’s grave.  Huong tells us she has converted Grandma’s stories into a manuscript which she brings to the grave.  She says “Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain.  I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintops, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself:  always strong, always protecting us.”

This remarkable book will engage the reader’s brain and your heart and give the reader a new perspective on this time and these people and on the concept of the usefulness of war in general. 

The Weight of Ink–Historical Fiction Meets Modern Historians

The Weight of Ink

By Rachel Kadish

Published 2017

Read June 2020

This book was recommended to our book discussion group as a highly worthy read.  Its length (592 pages) led to its timing as the first book of the fall season giving us the summer to read it.  This reader consumed it in fairly short order while listening to it on a 24 hour road trip plus some.    As is increasingly popular, the novel has two parallel sets of inerconnected stories.  In this case the settings for each are in the London area, but separated by time—about 400 years. 

One set of sections is set in 2000.   Professor Helen Watt, a professor of history at a London university, has hired Aaron Levey, an American graduate history student at her university, to help her assess a trove of documents found under the staircase of a house undergoing renovation.  She has three days to get a sense of their historical significance to make a recommendation regarding their acquisition by her university before an outside appraiser is engaged.  Helen is about to reach mandatory retirement age and would love to have a final positive bang for her academic career which has felt stifled by the men in her department. Aaron is struggling with his thesis topic and welcomes a short break from it, although working with Helen isn’t easy either.  The papers they are reviewing are from the 1650’s and 1660’s from the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes who had come from Amsterdam to London to join fellow members of the Amsterdam Portuguese Inquisition refugee community who had since migrated to London and were generally concealing their religion to stay out of harms way.  The rabbi had been blinded during the Inquisition so required a scribe to read and write for him.  These documents were, at least in part, in this scribe’s handwriting.  Shortly before their three days end, Helen and Aaron make the discovery that the scribe is a woman, a surprising finding as women weren’t generally sufficiently educated to serve in such a position, and even if they were, it wasn’t considered appropriate.

The other set of sections is set during the time of the writing of the documents Helen and Aaron are reviewing and provide the story of the documents and their authors.  We learn that two children of the Amerstam refugees had studied with Rabbi HaCoen Mendes in Amsterdam before he left for London.  After their parents were lost in a fire, the siblings were sent to live with the rabbi in London.  The brother left the home and refused the rabbi’s request to be his scribe.  Ester Velasquez, the sister, was relieved of her household duties to become his scribe, at least temporarily.  Rabbi Mendes manages to delay plans for Amsterdam to replace Ester as scribe (she should, of course, marry and have a family—the only option for women besides service in others’ households).  

So over the course of 592 pages readers spend time in 2000 and the 1660’s. The story set in 2000 progresses the course of study of the documents by Helen and Aaron and their academic competitors after the university’s acquisition of the documents (Aaron continues working with Helen after that three day assessment period).  Who will publish what first?  It gives a picture of research on this kind of document—where and how review can occur, what care of the documents is required, information about the ink in the documents and how that complicates research, and what the research can and can’t reveal.    It includes Helen’s struggles with the department chair regarding her continued access to the documents following her required retirement and her battles with Parkinson’s disease which complicates her study.  This section also dips into Helen’s past to give us the backstory that led her to focus on Jewish history.  We get background on Aaron, his struggles both professional and personal and his evolving perception of Helen.  The story set in the 1660’s progresses the story of Ester as scribe for Rabbi Mendes, his household, who provides financial support, and Ester’s life.   Interestingly, this is the time of the Black Plague in Europe and how Ester experiences it likely falls on readers’ ears differently if they are reading this book during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020 vs other times. 

 The stories of Helen and Ester compare and contrast the possible paths in their respective times for women with clear, quick minds if their inclination or choice isn’t fixed upon marriage.   Supporting characters Aaron Levy and Mary, another member of the London Jewish community who engages Ester as a companion so she can socialize with London society, provide additional stories highlighting the conventions of dating, courtship, and marriage in the two periods.

This novel is classified on this website as Historical Fiction.  Like other well-written Historical Fiction, this novel has its story interacting in an appropriately consistent manner with actual history.  In this case the real historical characters are the famous Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and Baruck Spinoza, both members of the Amsterdam refugee community of the Spanish/Portugues Inquisition.  Menassah was on a mission to populate England with Jews to enable the coming of the Messiah (which apparently was anticipated by Christian scholars at the time too).  Spinoza was a member of the Amsterdam refugee community who was excommunicated by the rabbis when he was only 23 as his philosophies were contrary to the accepted teachings of the times.  Some of the documents Helen and Aaron study are letters between Menasseh and Rabbi Mendes.  Some of the documents are letters between Spinoza and a little known scholar. 

Although there were sections that could have been more concise without losing any substance or feeling, this reader greatly enjoyed this book.  The modern characters were certainly believable.  One of the points of the book was to create Ester’s character to demonstrate what she could offer if she could exist.  Certainly her courage and desires were believable.  The historical and philosophy information/lessons were appreciated by this reader and well woven into the story.  Similarly the theme of the constraints on women’s role in society over time was not heavy handed.    That historians can’t find the whole story despite their best efforts is an interesting assertion the author make which is certainly true in this case.

This book can be enjoyed over a short period of time—like a 24 hour road trip—or at a more leisurely pace.  This reader anticipates enjoying re-reading at least parts before the book discussion, especially as it’s not for several months!

War and War and Tolstoy

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy

Published serially 1865-1867; in book form 1869

Read May-July 2019

I listened to the 2007 Naxos AudioBooks version of the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, read by Neville Jason, while referring to the Kindle version of the 1942 Oxford University Press Inner Sanctum Edition of the same translation.   The hardcopy of the Inner Sanctum Edition included a 12 page leaflet providing maps, a list of characters, both arranged in order of their appearance and in family groups, and a list of dates of principal historical events; this material was also included in the published hardcopy.   This edition also included Aylmer Maude’s preface, a brief biography of Tolstoy, and an introduction written by Clifton Fadiman which comments on the parallel between Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s invasion in 1941-42.   While the Kindle version doesn’t include the leaflet, it does include all other aspects of the Inner Sanctum Edition and is certainly easier to transport and store than the original hardcopy version. 

Neville Jason’s reading is fabulous. His reading allowed very easy assimilation of the various forms of the names of the numerous characters.  As the book progresses, and in the entire Epilogue Two, Tolstoy gives the reader various, sometimes lengthy, philosophical essays on his views of particular battles, the overall war with respect to causes of initiation, progression, and ending, Napoleon and Alexander, the documentation of war in history books, and the art of writing history itself, among others.  This reader anticipates these essays could have felt a bit tedious when reading “via eyes” but Neville Jason’s reading enabled this reader’s full engagement and a sense of Tolstoy earnestly speaking directly to this reader. 

Apparently Tolstoy chose the title “War and Peace” to replace the title (“1805”) originally used as the work was published serially.  Certainly the full work covers the period extending to 1820, with focus  on the Napoleonic-Russian War of 1805 and the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 so “1805” was an insufficient title.  The discussion of Peace is limited, however, unless he uses this term to cover the fictional story of five Russian families and numerous minor characters.  Or perhaps he used the term “Peace” to describe the period before the involvement of Russia in the 1805 war and the period between that war and Napoleon’s invasion.  In any case, he doesn’t overtly discuss “Peace” but he certainly discusses “War” as noted above. 

The book created controversy when it was published as the critics and public found it difficult to classify the book—not history, not a “normal” novel.  This reader sees the book as a form of historical fiction.  There are many (apparently some 160) real persons in the book, some only referenced and others actively involved in the story.  Tolstoy provides five fictional Russian families and numerous minor characters to engage the reader with a sense of the society of the time, to provide multiple stories of potential marriage matches, and to provide characters’ experiences in entering the service, in battle, and in the service of the army.  But unlike “normal” historical fiction, Tolstoy weighs in often with his personal take on various topics as noted above.

This reader invested unusually heavily in this book, purchasing both the two volumes of audiobook and the Kindle book.  The other investment, which seemed somewhat daunting at the beginning, was that the audiobook version requires 62 hours of listening.  But now that this reader is finished with listening, this reader frankly misses Neville Jason’s voice describing the various trials and tribulations of the five Russian families (which won’t be divulged here as you will want to discover yourselves) and providing this reader Tolstoy’s view on the various topics previously mentioned.  The only disappointment was in Epilogue 1 when Tolstoy’s view was divulged of the only purpose of women (to be married and raise children).  But this reader must give him a small pass here as this vast saga of families and the course of Russian history is so completely engaging.  This reader did utilize some other sources to comprehend better aspects of Russian and Napoleonic history that may have been familiar to his earliest readers.  Since this reader’s primary identity is “learner”, this book delivered well more than 62 hours of learning.  The Kindle version indicates average reading time of 32 hours.  This reader fully recommend investing savoring this book; Neville Jason’s version is time very well spent.

David: Warrior and Musician

The Secret Chord

By Geraldine Brooks

Published 2015

Read April 2019

Depending on your religious upbringing, your current spiritual practice, the movies you’ve seen, and the books you’ve read, your awareness of the story of the biblical David may be limited to the story of the young shepherd David slaying the giant Goliath or may be more expansive with various levels of detail about his rise to become the King of Israel, his musical abilities, the poetry ascribed to him, and his relationship with Bathsheba who becomes the mother of David’s successor, Solomon.  Geraldine Brooks gives us a fictionalized version of the biblical David story.  The term “biblical David”  being used as very limited evidence outside of the bible gives details of his life.  However, David is a figure discussed extensively in the Old Testament so there are many stories about him available there.

Brooks pulls no punches with the picture she paints of David.  He is shown as a man driven to create a united kingdom of Israel, willing to kill and conquer “as much as needed” to accomplish this goal.   While out of the favor of King Saul, who he succeeds, he was a maundering bandit who killed to get supplies when needed. She presents the interaction with Bathesba as a rape by David because he could, not a seduction by Bathesba of David. David has her husband killed when he finds out she carries his child and he fails at tricking the husband into sleeping with his wife while on active duty thus preventing a means to cover his “tracks”.   He had multiple wives, common at the time, some for political reasons, others to generate heirs, and his treatment of them was sometimes very far from kind.  His relationship with Jonathan, son of Saul, is not one that may be expected and one that impacts his marriage with Sauls daughter.  Brooks moderates the picture somewhat.  David asks Nathan, his sayer/prophet, to write his history, warts and all, and Nathan certainly finds and tells us the warts indicated above.  This sets up the structure of Nathan as narrator as scribe of the story.  In the last section of the book, after the kingdom is considered “whole”, other aspects of David are told. David writes much music and poetry to the near exclusion of managing the political wrangling between his various sons and lieutenants.   During this time Nathan is allowed by David to be a very close mentor to his son and ultimate heir, Solomon, who Nathan prophesizes will build the temple that David won’t be allowed given his past sins. 

Brooks’ story of David may or may not align with readers’ views or understanding of David. This reader anticipate it’s not her goal to provide the “truth” about David but rather to present a fictionalized possible picture of him and his time. This reader appreciate that while Brooks does use dialog to present the story at times, she relies on Nathan to be the narrator and doesn’t tell us what David is thinking. We see David through Brooks’ Nathan’s intepretation of David.

Much of the book deals with persistent warring between various tribes and between David’s army and all who stand in his way of creating a unified kingdom.  It was interesting that David apparently presumes his reason for conquering the city that will become the City of David justifies his action—it will provide a capital city which was not originally part of either of the two lands he is uniting.  The unification is good; a “neutral” capital will seal the unification. Death, destruction, subjugation are all justified for the good of creating this united kingdom which will worship the true single Word.  War pursued for religious purposes is clearly nothing new (David’s story occurred ~1000BC) and, unfortunately, humans have continued to battle for religious reasons to this day…..

Song of a Captive Bird

Song of a Captive Bird

By Jasmin Darznik

Published 2018

Read Jan 2019

Forugh Farrokhzad was a poet born in 1934 in Tehran, Iran.  During her short life (she died in a car accident at age 32) Forugh published several volumes of poetry that were highly praised and widely read, and directed a documentary, The House is Black, about a leper colony.  Her poetry was quite controversial as she wrote about desire, sin, loss, love, and more from her own perspective.  For both her extraordinary poetry and for her very unconventional life (divorced from by her husband who retained custody of her only child and a relationship with cinematographer Ebrahim Golestan, who was the producer of her documentary), she attracted much attention and disapproval.   She was hospitalized at one point for an alleged mental breakdown.  Her poetry was banned after the Islamic Revolution but remains widely read, now in many languages.

Jasmin Darznik moved to the US in 1978 with her parents when she was five years old and her parents were among many who fled Iran during this turbulent period of Iranian history.  In this book, Darznik has provided a fictionalized first-person account of Forugh’s life and brings to life a picture of this extraordinary woman as she fights to break free of the shackles imposed on women by her culture and of the times during which she lived.  That Forugh successfully published her sometimes very erotic poems demonstrates her amazing voice and her determination to be heard, and also shows a time when Iran, while even then extremely conservative, also provided an avenue for independent and controversial female voices to be heard.

Forugh’s voice in this book tells us of the struggles with her parents, husband, mother-in-law, editor/lover, Golestan, society, and herself.  She recognizes that the choices she makes are sometimes reckless and burn bridges back to a more standard life, but she is firmly committed to live life by her rules and not others, even if at times she is lonely.

While I sometimes struggle with fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people, I fully recommend this one.  The first-person voice Darznik presents of Forugh is not inconsistent with Forugh’s poetry that is quoted throughout the book.  This is an accessible portal to learn about this remarkable woman whose voice rings strong, loud, and clear 51 years after her death and even when translated into English from the original Farsi.

A Novel of the Great War

The Care and Management of Lies:  A Novel of the Great War

By Jacqueline Winspear

Published 2014

Read July 2018

I read this while waiting for my turn for the library’s copy of Winspear’s newest Massie Dobbs novel.  This is the only book in her canon that isn’t a Massie Dobbs novel but it satisfies similarly.  Winspear writes engaging historical fiction providing interesting characters, many details of life in that time, and a story in which the characters struggle with issues confronting people in that time.   The Massie Dobbs novels start with Massie post-WWI although the impact of WWI or WWII is usually felt by both Massie and other characters in each book.  In this novel Winspear dives directly into the lives of people dealing with the early onset of the “Great War”, in particular the pressure felt by all to either enlist or “do something” for the war effort and the resulting consequences.

Taking leave of Massie Dobbs, Winspear was able to create 4 new characters of whom we learn about their thoughts, dreams, concerns, and fears:  Thea and Tom Brissenden, siblings who have known Kezia Marchant since Kezia and Thea (then Dorritt) were scholarship classmates at a girl’s boarding prep school, well before Tom and Kezia marry, and Edmund Hawkes, current generation owner of an estate from which Tom’s father obtained their farm through a wager with Edmund’s father.   Each of these characters is simultaneously strong and self-doubting.   Kezia and Tom write regularly to each other once Tom enlists and take care in their letters to manage some lies of incomplete truths to enable their beloved to carry on through the trials they are facing.  Winspear was unburdened from resolving a mystery that Massie and her team must solve so she was free to bring her story to an appropriate close that is true to each character and the time in which they lived.

I advocate for Winspear to continue writing non-Massie Dobbs books so we can experience other aspects of modern English history through her well-constructed and well-rounded characters.  I appreciate that Winspear is productive but not overly prolific—her production pace allows her to provide us rich details and context about the historical backdrop for her interesting stories and avoid being formulaic.  And of course I look forward to more works about Massie Dobbs…

Half of a Yellow Sunby C.N. Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun

By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

Published 2006

Read:  sometime in 2016; reread Sept 2017

This is a truly remarkable book.

First let me share that when I started reading (actually listening to) this book, I did not know its subject.  I only knew that I appreciated Adichie’s more recent book Americanah , was interested in more by this author, and a friend recommended this one.  I purchased the audiobook, but did not read it for several months.  By the time I began to read it, I only knew it was set in Nigeria, the birth country of the author.  What a powerful and wonderful surprise to be treated to a deep story of three characters through which I learned much about Nigeria—its history and impact of that history on the relationships between various regions, ethnic groups, and classes–and the brief history of Biafra as it sought to split from Nigeria and form a separate independent republic.

Adichie tells this complex story in 4 Parts and 37 chapters from the perspective of three characters.  In addition, eight extracts from “The Book:  The World Was Silent When We Died” are dispersed through the book.  The reader eventually understands this book is being written by one of the characters and the book is about the history of Biafra.

In Part One: The Early Sixties we meet the three characters whose perspectives we will view the overall story.

Ugwu is a 13 year boy from a poor village who gets a job as a house boy for a math professor at Nssuka University.  His aunty learned about the position through her job as a cleaner in the university building housing the math department.  The aunty assures Master that Ugwu will learn quickly.  Odenigbo (Master) fails at getting Ugwu to call him by his name vs “Master” or “Sah” but does get Ugwu into school so that he can substantially extend his education beyond his very few years of elementary school.  Through Ugwu’s perspective we learn, in Part One, about the his awe of modern plumbing and appliances, his role in the house, the arrival of Odenigbo’s lover Olanna and the impact she has on Ugwu’s cooking and personal hygiene, and Master’s friends who argue about politics of Nigeria .  Thus the story through his perspective starts teaching us about the various socio-economic classes and gives us a picture of the political problems in Nigeria in the early 1960s.

Olanna is a London educated daughter of an Igbo Chief who resides in Lagos and whose business interests and personal finances benefit from this political position.  She does not “support” her father’s business interests by having a relationship with another Chief nor does she take a job in Lagos as her parents would prefer, but rather accepts a job as an instructor at Nssuka University so she can cohabitate with her “revolutionary lover”, as her twin sister, Kaninene calls Odenigbo.  We learn through Olana’s perspective, in Part One, about her mother’s sister and family who live in Kano (in the north) in a 2-room apartment in a compound and make their living selling goods in a market, about her former rich Muslim boyfriend (also lives in Kano), and about the stresses of establishing herself in life post-grad school as Odengibo’s  lover, with his group of friends, and her new relationships with her family. Thus we gain insight about more socio-economic classes, religious conflicts, and politics in Nigeria.

Richard is a young British expatriate who has come to Nigeria with an interest in Igbo-Ukwu art and a desire to become a writer, or at least a journalist of more substance than he’d accomplished so far with a tiny column for a paper in London.  His Aunt Elizabeth (who raised him after he was orphaned) connected him with Susan, another expatriate who is a little older than Richard and who had been in Nigeria for some time.  She helps him get established with living essentials, introduces him to her (exclusively) ex-pat friends, encourages his writing by setting up an office for him in her home, and makes him her boyfriend.  He meets Kainene, Olanna’s twin, and leaves Susan.  He takes a position at Nssuka University and moves to Nssuka.  Kainene has Olanna get him a houseboy and introduce Richard to Odenigbo’s friends, fully linking these major characters.  Through his perspective we learn about the British attitudes regarding Nigerian people and Nigeria’s recent independence from Britain, get an impression about Kaninene’s business life, and meet Major Madu, a friend of Kaninene’s since childhood and a member of Nigeria’s army.  Thus we gain more understanding about additional aspects of the Nigeria political and business scene at the time.

In Part Two:  The Late Sixties Adichie uses her characters to tells us of the political coups, massive violence against the Igbo people following the second coup, secession of the Igbo region from Nigeria as Biafra , and  the beginning of the military action Nigeria begins to force reunification.  Her characters, which she has by now richly drawn for us, can now provide us a human view of these events—the devastation of losing family members to the massacre in the north, the excitement of Biafra’s declaration of independence, and the confusion and disorientation of becoming an in-country refugee while fleeing “the vandals” (the Nigerian army).

Part Three:  The Early Sixties takes us back before the coup.  In this short part we learn about personal wars and betrayals that nearly break Olanna’s relationship with Odinigbo and Richard’s relationship with Kaninene .  Through these issues the story shows us the expectations of a village mother (Odinigbo’s) and the role of magic and spells in villagers’ lives again informing us of Nigerian parallel cultures—village and intellectuals.

Part Four:  The Late Sixties is the longest section.  Adichie’s characters lead us through the war. Initially, life is difficult but still bearable as Biafra continues to establish a government (and army!) and teach the residents about the expected joy of independence.  However, as Nigeria gains Britain’s support to reunify and other countries fail to recognize Biafra, life becomes increasingly difficult as the number of in-country refugees increases and aid to them severely declines.  Her characters Olanna and Ugwu allow us a very human view of the impact of Nigeria’s use of starvation as a major weapon in their war against Biafra, the toll of losing loved ones, the inequities still present between the government employees and the masses,  and  the horrors of war fought by conscripted young people directed militarily by hired mercenaries.  Richard’s character helps us understand aspects of the role of journalism in the war.  He is asked to write articles to send to the foreign press to gain recognition of Biafra or at least of its dire need for help for its people’s survival.  He serves as guide to some foreign correspondents who seek to “get the story” which isn’t the same as getting a real understanding of the actual situation.  We feel the relentless pressure of the war on every aspect of the characters’ lives and struggle with them as they are stripped of so much but try to retain some threads of themselves.  During my second read, I knew how the story would end, but I still cheered for the characters and hoped things would turn out better than I knew they would.

I listened to an unabridged edition, narrated by Robin Miles and published by Recorded Books in 2011. .  The voice she provided for each character reflected their socio-economic class, education, and country of origin.  Unfortunately I do not find this edition through on-line searches for it.  A new edition published by Books on Tape was apparently released Sept 19, 2017 and now shows on the Recorded Books website.  I hope it provides a similar experience for the listener as it certainly added to my understanding of the characters.

This is “historical fiction” at its best:  multiple superbly and fully developed major characters, a carefully constructed cast of essential supporting characters, engaging personal stories that provide much information about the culture, the socio-economic climate, and the drivers of the historical events–without ever feeling like you’ve been lectured to.  Adichie is an excellent story teller but even more importantly she provides us an exceptionally human look at a piece of history which is likely familiar to few readers in the west.

Georgia

Georgia:  A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe

by Dawn Tripp

Published 2016

Read Jan 2, 2017

Dawn Tripp became intrigued by Georgia O’Keefe after attending a show of her abstractions held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009.  She researched her life extensively and was able to read a large collection of letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz, initially her mentor, then her lover, then her manager and eventually her husband, while writing this book.  Tripp is clear about what she offers us—a novel inspired by the life of O’Keefe, imagining dialogue between O’Keefe and Stieglitz as well as O’Keefe’s internal dialogue.  I appreciate her honesty about what she’s written and the extensive research she did to prepare.  I did, however, have difficulty with the imagining of dialogue and, especially, the internal thoughts regarding their passion and details of their sexual relationship.

The book did help me substantially expand my understanding of O’Keefe’s life and art and her relationship with Stieglitz, about whom I had no knowledge beyond that he and O’Keefe were lovers and their careers were linked.   Tripp wants us to better understand both the positive and negative impact he had on O’Keefe’s career.

Stieglitz enabled her to leave an unsatisfying teaching career and to fully focus on her art—she didn’t have to worry about working to support herself.  One can say that the money came from sale of her art, which was true eventually but not initially.  His promotion of O’Keefe was essential for the public to know anything of her art.   She completely put her art in his hands from a business standpoint. I found it interesting that the first show he included her work in was done without her even knowing it.  Because he has an understanding of what will sell, she gets some input on what to paint and not—some of which she follows but most of which she does not, although (I think) the art exhibited was chosen by him.   Only once while Stieglitz is alive does she enter a business relationship or exhibition without his support—the commission to paint a permanent mural on the ladies room of the Radio City Music Hall.  He does influence the contract eventually after much discussion between them.  The project fails and she has a mental breakdown and requires hospitalization. It’s not fully clear what led to the breakdown—the failure of the project or his warning not to take the contract. Her apparent distance from the business aspects of her life and work are exemplified by the fact that following his death, 27 years pass before another major NYC show of her work.

The first major show of O’Keefe’s work that Stieglitz produced in 1923 included not only her work but a number of his photographs of her, many being nudes.  This was a rare public showing of his own work; he had focused more on promoting and enabling other artists for some time.  The co-exhibition permanently linked together O’Keefe and Stieglitz as more than a producer/artist.   This show also established O’Keefe as a major woman artist and set up the critical view that followed her throughout her career—focused on her gender.  O’Keefe rejected this interpretation of her work.  She wanted her art to be considered through a genderless perspective and she wanted to be known as the greatest living artist—not the greatest living woman artist.  Her focus remained on creating art and she profoundly limits interactions critics and others.     She actively distances herself from feminism and the feminist leaders of her time, including Gloria Stienem who tried to visit her but was rebuffed.  Such was her desire to not be seen through a gender or feminist perspective.  Even in the reviews of 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (which Stieglitz arranged) which he shares with her she only partly appreciates.  From James Thrall Soby:  “She is the greatest of living women painters….Hers is a world of bones and flowers, hills and the city….She created this world; it was not there before and there is nothing like it anywhere.”  Stieglitz hears the aspect of creating a unique world but she is offended by the reference to her as a women painter.  O’Keefe believed she was a great artist period and rejects the “woman artist” reference because it limited the public’s view of her.

Stieglitz make O’Keefe possible—brings her to the public eye and finds financial support for her (eventually from the sale of her work) so that she can fully devote herself to her art.   But Stieglitz also hurts O’Keefe.  Stieglitz clearly loves O’Keefe but also enjoys adoration from young women, O’Keefe being one of these early in their own relationship.  O’Keefe never forgives Stieglitz’s affairs, especially the one with Mrs. Norman who becomes an administrative assistant for Stieglitz and the studio and whom O’Keefe dismisses after Stieglitz’s death.  Stieglitz denies O’Keefe a child, possibly because he understands, although she doesn’t at the time, that O’Keefe does and always would place art first and foremost in her life.   There was space for Stieglitz in that obsession with art at least initially as O’Keefe’s obsession with art and with Stieglitz were blurred together for some time.  They remain married and business partners through Stieglitz’s affairs but they spend less and less time together, especially once O’Keefe discovers the west and her love for it.  She slowly disengages from Stieglitz as she spends increasingly more time in New Mexico.  Tripp notes that O’Keefe can pinpoint a moment that her life became wholly hers “more mine than it ever was before because I will never again let it be anything less”.

According to Tripp, O’Keefe wonders about what her art would have become if she had not met him and the obsession between them had not begun.  In particular she wonders what direction she would have gone with her early abstract forms which she generally chose not to exhibit to avoid their interpretation through a gender view.   In the opening chapter of the book O’Keefe recalls that even while a poor school teacher she was “driven only by a singular, relentless passion for my art”.

Tripp introduces us to O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the results of their mutual obsession, the importance of O’Keefe in art history, the range of her work beyond the well-known flower paintings (only about 10% of her portfolio) and opens the question of what might have been in the absence of the meeting of O’Keefe and Stieglitz and subsequent mutual obsession.   I appreciate that Tripp has enabled me to know more about O’Keefe than I would have otherwise.  To do it, however, required a willingness to accept Tripp’s imaginings of dialog and internal thinking which remains somewhat problematic for this reader.

Historical Fiction in the Middle East

Dreamers of the Day

By Mary Doria Russell

Published 2008

Read July 2017

I saw this book on display in my local library.  I previously had read Russell’s first two novels,  The Sparrow and Children of God so picked this up to see what it was about.  She has an engaging starting line “My little story has become your history.  You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.” As I have been doing a little studying of Churchill this summer and since understanding a bit about the origins of the modern political geography, I checked out this historical fiction book to see what it would reveal.

The story is told by a spinster schoolteacher from Ohio.  She loses to the Great Influenza of 1919 her entire family, including sister and brother-in-law who had done missionary work in Cario, Egypt, and long-widowed and domineering mother who left her a small inheritance.   Agnes decides to these funds to book passage to Egypt in 1921 and walk where her sister and brother-in-law had walked.  She booked a room at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, conveniently at the same time the “Cairo Conference” was to be held at that hotel.  While being denied her reservation there as they would not accept her pet dachshund as a guest she begins her encounters with Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, who were important figures at this Middle East Conference called by young Churchill to discuss the Middle East problems of the time, as well as a fictional German spy who befriends Agnes and takes care of her dog while she enjoys her interesting times with the historical figures he’s interested it tracking a bit.

Russell does a nice job of balancing the historical figures and fictional characters.   Agnes’ sister’s connections get Agnes into various actual scenes with the historical figures including Winston Churchill’s painting the pyramids and the demonstration that met Churchill and the delegation when it arrived in Jerusalem, which  T.E . Lawrence quells.  Russell has done her homework on the conference well and gives some information about the outcome of the conference, which set into motion creation of Iraq, the eventual creation of a Jewish state, and lots of turmoil that continues until today.  There is enough information about this to whet the appetite for more reading of the history.   Russell maintains nice focus on her fictional character, Agnes, and the story of her journey to become her own woman, no longer under the domineering influence of her mother and pulls off this story in an interesting and reasonably believable manner.