What We’re Reading

A Is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth
By Penelope Scambly Schott (Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point Books, 2007)
Reviewed by Judith Arcana

This book, which the poet calls “verse biography,” combines the pleasures of poetry with the pleasures of biography in fierce commitment to craft and content. I believe in this Anne Hutchinson, and Anne’s family too: the mother exasperated with her husband—a father who educated his daughter to question authority; Anne’s own husband, loving his rebel wife; Susannah, the daughter whose memory provides a luminous eulogy. I recognize the Puritan patriarchs, threatened so profoundly by the mind and spirit of a powerful woman that they must torment, imprison, and banish her.

Born in England in 1591, Anne Hutchinson escaped persecution by emigrating to North America in 1634, where she also met intense opposition. Banished from Massachusetts and having fled Rhode Island, she died in the war between colonists and indigenous nations in New York in 1643. Teacher, preacher, and community midwife, Anne was the mother of fifteen children.

Simplicity of form and language is no barrier to complexity of meaning here. Both the narrator’s voice and Anne’s voice are layered—and often startlingly audible. One of several primary threads is father/daughter relationship. The poet creates Anne’s father as a source and mentor: her father is “always right,” he’s “never out of temper” with her; in fact, Christ/God/Anne’s father/Anne’s husband/Anne’s “dear teacher” John Cotton and the poet’s own father mingle and overlap in imagery and overt comparison. The poet’s willingness to offer such complication is matched by her skill in this unique history of a strong woman’s wisdom and spirit.

Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile
by Nuha Al-Radi (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003)
Review by Anita Barrows

“When the war started in l99l, it seemed natural that family and friends should come and stay in my orchard. We felt safer being together . . .” Thus writes Nuha Al-Radi in the prologue to the journal she kept from 19 January, 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, through the years of continued bombings and sanctions imposed on her country. The journal, which ends in the spring of 2003 during the horrors of “shock and awe,” consists of frequent entries documenting the daily life of Al-Radi’s immediate community.

Al-Radi, born in Baghdad in 1941, is a painter, sculptor, and ceramicist. Her journal, albeit describing a circle of artists and intellectuals and not the poorest and most brutally impacted of Iraq’s citizens, draws the reader into connection with the ways in which war dismantles the fabric of living. “Surgeons are now operating without gloves,” she reports after speaking with a friend. “. . . The dead have to be buried immediately because there are no working freezers in the hospitals . . . (But) parents are beating up their children because they can be hospitalized for up to three weeks—there they can be fed.”

By now, any of us who has read reports of life on the ground in Iraq, even in mainstream media, is familiar with such harrowing details. What is compelling about Al-Radi’s diaries (like Zlata’s diary from the former Yugoslavia, or The Diary of Anne Frank) is the way they allow the reader to witness the experience intimately. As Al-Radi moves back and forth between Baghdad and exile from Baghdad, as she attempts to make her art and care for her aging mother and her despairing friends, we come to know one particular way of living and coping with war. Al-Radi’s humor, humanity, and resilience are apparent on every page of her book; but so is a profound and pervasive grief: “We are very alone now, but may we remain fertile like the Fertile Crescent that is our identity in so many ways. There is no quick fix to the Iraqi problem. I know . . . But I feel very, very sad, because we are also a people.”

Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
By Rebecca Goldstein (New York, NY: Schocken, 2006)
Reviewed by Marcia Freedman

Rebecca Goldstein is a writer of fiction and an analytic philosopher who has specialized in the 17th-century philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, a Jew declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam. Rebecca Goldstein also is a Jew, raised like Spinoza in a strictly Orthodox Jewish environment and deeply educated in Jewish texts.

It is Rebecca Goldstein the novelist who introduces us to Spinoza through the teachings of Mrs. Schoenfeld’s lessons in historia at the all-girls orthodox religious high school she attended growing up in Brooklyn. But it is Goldstein the philosopher and Jew who tries to answer the question of why Baruch Spinoza (whose name in Hebrew/Portuguese means “blessed thorn”) was declared a heretic and banished from his community at the age of twenty-three. This was before he had written the philosophical treatises for which he is known and only on the basis of his questions or utterances to fellow students at the Talmudic academy where he was a star pupil.

What did he say that was so terrible? Goldstein takes us back to the experience of Spanish and Portuguese Jews during the Inquisition of Torqemada. All Jews in Spain and Portugal were given the choice of converting to Catholicism, emigrating, or being burned at the stake. Most converted, but many retained a hidden, dangerous, and secretive life as underground Jews. They were known as Hidden Jews, or conversos, or Marranos.

The Amsterdam community was descended from former Marranos. The issue of personal identity, specifically Jewish identify, was, as Goldstein makes clear, a much-argued issue in that community, only one hundred years after the Marrano experience. Goldstein claims that growing up in a climate so dominated by issues of personal identity led Spinoza to put the question of what constitutes individual identity, or consciousness, at the center of his thinking.

Goldstein’s titled betrayal of Spinoza is twofold. When he was notified of his excommunication by the leaders of the Amsterdam Jewish community, Spinoza’s reaction was something like “Good riddance.” He broke off all connection, wrote in Latin under the name Benedictus Spinoza (still “blessed thorn”). Surely he wouldn’t appreciate Goldstein’s yanking him back into the controversies about Jewish identity that were the stock and trade of the same Amsterdam rabbis who excommunicated him.

She betrays Spinoza a second time by returning him to the question of his own personal identity after he spent a lifetime proving by logical deduction that all identity is universal. Don’t ask. You have to read it, but I hope you will, and you’ll understand it, too. Goldstein is too much the novelist to lose her readers in abstraction.

What Isn’t There: Inside a Season of Change
By Jocelyn Lieu (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2007)
Reviewed by Jane Lazarre

On September 11, 2001, Jocelyn Lieu, a writer who lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, began a journal that would become a memoir of loss, a story of a woman cutting a path of consciousness and conscience through the political and personal thickets of those first “post 9/11” months. Lieu is a deeply intelligent, at times a visionary artist, and eventually the journal became a beautiful work of art, but she has retained the feeling of a journal—a world taking shape just as words are found to describe it, a woman in the act of bearing witness. We meet Lieu’s husband, their daughter, Gracie, then eighteen-months-old, other family and friends. We go to the park where, despite the “bright clouds of disaster,” mothers push children in swings, catch them as they zoom down slides. We walk up and down the streets of lower Manhattan, following the writer’s emotional journey as she describes the jingoistic patriotism and war fever she deplores, the common humanity she shares in expected and unexpected places, the shock of her love for some part of America which “must have been there all along.”

In New York City then, many of us were at sea—a sea of poisonous ash, thick at Ground Zero, visible and deadly as it floated uptown. Months would pass before some of us could begin to unpack the fast-packing distortions that made our intimate tragedy seem—at first—unique, unthinkable.

“Thirty-seven weeks have passed since September 11,” Lieu writes. “During that time, more than a million and a half tons of wreckage and nearly twenty thousand body parts were removed from the site.”

At an early demonstration against the war in Iraq, in her classroom, on a trip to New Mexico, she longs for “faith that sense would be made,” tries to imagine it, but can hope, in the end, only for “collaboration” in recording the world’s stories even when understanding and meaning seem impossibly remote. She hopes, “in a small way to rescue the day from symbolism. May it be returned to the realm of lived experience, which is where, if there is to be peace—the ‘fierce continual flame’ of peace that the poet Muriel Rukeyser writes of—it belongs.”

I read this memoir during a year of personal loss. I am grateful for the combination of beautiful language and insight that is the essence of poetry: “When the world glistens with grief’s electric colors, the dead seem to be with us. They’re brought to life. They’re almost here.”

In a time of highly competent literary inauthenticity, I am grateful for her courage—to write from the heart, all her emotions bared, enclosed only in naked, echoing words.

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