What We’re Reading

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan
By Ann Jones (New York: Picador, 2006)
Reviewed by Sandra Butler

Ann Jones is an activist, teacher, world traveler and photographer. She is also a searing writer. In Women Who Kill (1980) and Next Time She’ll Be Dead (1994), Jones was among the first to bring feminist understandings to the subject of domestic violence. In the intervening years her travel and writing took her to Africa, where she wrote Looking for Lovedu (2001), and Afghanistan, where she wrote Kabul in Winter.

In these unsentimental pages, Jones records her four winters in Afghanistan as she worked to train English teachers emerging from the Taliban’s confinement. The narrative begins with a wide-angled lens, panning the streets, introducing the region’s labyrinthine history, offering the reader a sense of attitudes and realities in Kabul and its environs. Then she narrows her focus and takes us into the staggering constraints, adaptations, and realities of life for women in post-war Afghanistan. She writes knowledgeably and heartbreakingly of Kabul’s primitive women’s prisons and makeshift schools, illuminating them with a complex immediacy.

Seasoned in the art and craft of making hidden truths come alive on the page, startle the reader into recognition and hopefully to action, Jones balances scorn about the corruption of the international aid business and the long traditions of male contempt for women’s lives with a respect and pride for the struggles of women to learn and educate their daughters. She interlaces her expose of the history and iron-clad control of women with poignant vignettes of women struggling to imagine a different future. She tells us tender stories of the myriad and subtle ways her students became her teachers.

Kabul is inhospitable ground. Jones plants her words with purpose, intention, care and great respect for the people whose lives emerge fully in these moving pages.

The Echo Maker
By Richard Powers (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Girous, 2006)
Reviewed by Ellen Y. Siegelman

This complex novel, which won the National Book Award in 2006, spoke to me in many ways. It is an enthralling mystery novel (a kind of “who wrote it,” the “it” being a cryptic note found on the hospital night table of Mark, a 26-year-old expert driver who has somehow crashed his truck on the North Line Road in Kearney, Nebraska.) Kearney is the site of the annual winter stopover of thousands of sandhill cranes before they head north to the Arctic Circle. Mark regains consciousness and the power of speech gradually; in the meantime his sister Karin has driven in from South Dakota. Mark is diagnosed with Capgras Syndrome caused by the accident—a neuropsychological disorder characterized by failure to recognize the people closest to them. Mark believes his sister is a clever fraud, an impostor, a double who looks and talks like Karin but has been planted to deceive him. The heartbreak this causes Karin is related in the novel. In addition to Mark and Karen, the third character we learn about from the “inside” is Gerald Webber, an Oliver Sacks-like researcher and popularizer of stories about anomalies of consciousness, who is called in to consult on Mark’s case.

In addition to being a mystery story, the book is a kind of case history that will fascinate the psychologically-minded, as we learn that other characters—and perhaps all of us as readers– suffer from mild versions of misidentification syndromes. The fallibility of memory and consciousness is a major theme.

Looked at from a more formal point of view, the book is also an attempt to use musical motifs to tell the story of a threatened species, the sandhill crane, the oldest continuing bird species, “kin to the pterodactyls.” Powers, himself a musician, uses musical means and motifs to tell this story: Each of the book’s five sections begins with a kind of “overture” written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, exalting the cranes (the “echo makers” of the title) and taking us into the world of myth and legend. Here, too, the theme of echoes and doubles recurs, as the cranes echo and mirror each other in their courting dances. It’s a compelling and, at times, exalted read.

Harvest Moon: Portrait of a Nursing Home
By Sallie Tisdale (New York: Henry Holt, 1987)
Reviewed by Sandy Boucher

As Sallie Tisdale notes, “Age is the last place and time most of us will inhabit, and the fact that age seems so foreign to most of us, as though cleft from the known world, is one of life’s sly tricks.” Writing like this makes Harvest Moon a feast to be thoughtfully devoured, even as the book confronts some of the most harrowing realities of the last phase of life. A nurse who has worked in nursing homes, as well as a much-published writer, Tisdale admits that she likes nursing homes and the people in them, both residents and staff. The nursing home is a different world from the one we normally inhabit, she points out. Standing apart, it “becomes a kind of tribal village, a place of misfits. It has a language of its own, customs of its own . . .” Tisdale gives us a travel guide to this foreign land, with vibrant portraits of residents and staff, as well as in-depth discussion of the effects of stroke, the labyrinthine tangles of Medicare, the intricately calibrated system for authorizing or refusing care. In subtle, intelligent, and beautiful prose, she honors the humanity of all concerned, as she offers information that may be useful to us someday. Harvest Moon can be found online at several independent used- book websites: Abebooks or Alibris.

The River Midnight
By Lilian Nattel (New York: Scribner, 2004)
Reviewed by Rosie Rosenzweig.

The River Midnight seduced me, a student of Jewish Mystery, with its lead paragraph and would not let me go until bedtime, when I had to reread many sections again and again with the help of the list of discussion questions, glossary, suggested readings, and biographical date. Here is that first paragraph:

“. . . In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change . . . Some might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it’s just a question of style . . . But their mission is the same.”

Nattel, a Canadian trying to piece together her Polish ancestry through research and imagination, has written the unfolding multiple stories of a Jewish Rashomon, characterizing the prostitute and the proud, the religious and the irreligious. An impregnated aging midwife, determined never to stay married, is its wise woman protagonist. The core events are told and retold, first from the eyes of the women and then from the men. Each retelling at Jewish festivals, High Holy Days, and Shabbats through the 1800s in the fictional Polish village of Blaszka brings updated and added insights. By the end we are allowed to name the angels and demons, but not which side they are on.

The Gift
by Ita Willen (Colorado: The Wessex Collective, 2005)
Reviewed by Sandra Shwayder Sanchez

When Ita Willen moved from a displaced persons community in Germany to the United States with her traumatized parents, she dedicated herself to not only learning but mastering the English language. Her first book, a collection of political and philosophical essays paired with recipes using ingredients from third-world diets, was published by Random House in 1972 when she was Ita Jones, a twenty-something radical. The Grubbag still has its fans. Although invited to follow up with another collection, she had a college education to finish and a world to explore. When she sent her next manuscript to her old editor, the woman declared it a powerful work but said no one wanted to read about the Holocaust.

The Gift is not “about the Holocaust” but about a young woman who is displaced from birth. Coming to America, she cannot relate to second- and third- generation Jews who take everything for granted. She seeks to find where she fits in, studying with a rabbi, a Buddhist teacher, seeking answers from nature itself. The book is organized according to the seasons in her garden, and again food is an inspiration. Growing and preparing it, she retrieves buried memories and looks at them with new insights. Her writing style is mesmerizing as she describes and illuminates the horrific, the mundane, and the sublime. Coming to the end of this short and indeed powerful book, the reader takes a moment to catch her breath and ponder.

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