Cover Story Women of the Year Jersey Girls | Jessica Seigel Samanta Power | Catherine Orenstein Betty Dukes | Ellen Hawkes Saudatu Mahdi | Stephanie Nolen Kathy Najimy | Ellen Snortland Maxine Waters | Lisa Armstrong Lisa Fernandez | Michele Kort
Fiction Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary | Rebecca Brown
Poetry It was a Good Year for Dreams | Cortney Davis
the seahorse as transubstantiation |Quan Barry
Passings Activists, actors, academics, athletes, writers and a great chef
Patricia Cohen on Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; Jenoyne Adams on Michel Wallace's Dark Designs and Visual Culture;Debra Spark on Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World; Bernadette Murphy on Mary Gordon's Pearl; Valerie Miner on Alice Munro's Runaway
Plus:Winter Must-Read List
Backtalk We Must Frame the Debate - Now! | Donna Brazile
Gilead By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23
John Ames will not live to see his son’s eighth birthday. He is 76 and has a failing heart. So Ames, a preacher at a struggling church in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, decides to write a letter, an extended chronicle really, to leave his only child, telling him the “things I would have told you if you had grown up with me,” as well as the “things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself.”
Ames’ episodic entries — on family history, theological disquisitions, meditations on existence — make up this slim book. The tender examination of love, loyalty and loss will be familiar to fans of Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated 1981 novel, Housekeeping. It has been 23 years, but she has, thankfully, produced a second novel in which she returns to those themes with characteristic delicacy, intelligence and wit.
Ames’ father was a preacher and so was his grandfather, a fiery abolitionist who relied on a Bible and a gun. Yet the horrors of the Civil War so appalled Ames’ father that he turned against the eldest Ames’ righteous wrath. This filial split replays itself over the generations, whether in the form of abandonment, death or lapsed belief.
John Ames’ 7-year-old will inherit this legacy of loss, just as he will inherit a world where the bitter and vexed problems of race are still unsettled. But the legacy also includes reconciliation, even if belated. John Ames and his father wander through the desolate Kansas plains — their Horeb — to find the grandfather’s grave.
John’s godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton, returns to Gilead looking for refuge and guidance. With the first rumblings of the civil rights movement as a backdrop, Boughton decides to adopt the Ames family’s abolitionist history as his own.
John Ames’ young son, too, will have the chance of a latent reunion, by finding this diary (as his father intends) when he is grown.
Robinson circles back again and again to her themes — fatherhood, lost and found; the physical and emotional wilderness; racial unrest; the variability of family narratives — each time etching her points more finely.
In an interview with The New Yorker online, the author talks about her own interest in Calvinism and “the belief, sometimes called ‘secularism,’ that the sacred has no boundaries.” That intermingling of the physical and the spiritual suffuses this book.
Ames thinks of the rainy day when, as a child, he helped his father work on the ruins of a Negro Baptist church. He remembers opening his mouth to receive an ashy biscuit from his father’s charred hand, like taking communion — even though he doubts this particular scene actually took place. But that doesn’t matter; the memory, or rather what he makes of it, is more important than the facts.
“I wanted … to give you some version of that same memory,” he writes, so that at his son’s first communion, Ames “broke the bread and fed a bit of it to you from my hand.”
In the end, what troubles Ames are not his recollections but his ability to communicate them. “If only I could give you what my father gave me,” he says, but he worries that his language is insufficient, that his writing is not up to the task. “If only I had the words to tell you.” Fortunately, Marilynne Robinson does.
BLACK FEMINIST REDUX Jenoyne Adams
Dark Designs and Visual Culture By Michele Wallace
Duke University Press, $23.95
In 1979, 27-year-old Michele Wallace burst into the feminist literary scene with Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, which explored the perils of black women standing behind their men instead of beside them. Met with strong feminist praise and acclaim and even stronger backlash from many of the black male leaders of the day, Wallace stood her ground.
In Dark Designs and Visual Culture, a compilation of previously published work, new essays and interviews, she is still standing her ground, but courageously acknowledges the shifting tectonics of evolution.
As she looks back on her significant body of work, her career, personal relationships and the impact of popular culture on black existence, it’s clear that Wallace isn’t afraid to say “I’ve made a few mistakes” or, more aptly, “I called a spade a spade, when I thought of it as such.”
In the introduction, Wallace warns, “I’ve tried to tell the truth. Not the whole truth but the portion of it that I could bear to tell and that you could bear to hear.” In some books the introduction slows you down, but this 26-page odyssey is worth your time. Used as a road map, it helps to guide the reader through the thoughts, motivations, triumphs and fears that have firmed up the author’s view of her own life and the body of cultural criticism she has amassed over the 15-year span this collection covers.
In times such as these, when errors are upheld as right at all costs, such transparency is refreshing. In her essay “For Whom the Bell Tolls: Why Americans Can’t Deal with Black Feminist Intellectuals,” Wallace gives a brutal critique of bell hooks’ theories, calling Killing Rage “dogmatic, repetitive, and dated.”
But when reflecting on this essay, the author remarks, “If there were one thing I had ever written that I could un-publish and un-write, it would be this piece on bell hooks … it wasn’t my place to chastise her publicly.”
There are instances in the book where Wallace’s views have adopted a new openness. Since the original publication of When Black Feminism Faces the Music, and the Music Is Rap, Wallace’s personal dislike of rap music has been softened by a greater understanding of the rap art form and the lives of the people who produce it. In other essays, her past convictions strongly influence where she stands today.
“Conversations on the Gulf ” highlights the frustrations many of her colleagues and students shared about the Gulf War.
Wallace asserts, “I am still proud of this piece … proud of the fact that I understood even then how devastating a war in the Gulf would continue to be. War doesn’t work well.”
The book includes a self-published excerpt from her memoir. In this excerpt, “To Hell and Back: On the Road with Black Feminism in the ’60s and ’70s,” she states her views plainly and with conviction: “Some … continue to believe that a black woman must be brainwashed by white culture in order to voluntarily call herself a feminist. In fact, it has never been easier for me to be a black feminist than it is right now. Perhaps because I haven’t been anything else for so many years, I find it difficult to imagine how women who are not feminist stand themselves.”
Whether revising decades-old opinions or reaffirming them, this collection of work including thoughts on her mother, artist Faith Ringgold, the Million Man March, the sexualizing of the black female body and the continuing debate on black visual culture crystallizes Wallace’s sharp criticism and concerns for the state of black existence and feminist culture. Evolve on, Michele Wallace. Evolve on.
ASSEMBLY OF REFUGEES
by Debra Spark
Heir to the Glimmering World By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin, $24
"Why," complained a long-ago teacher of mine, as he prepared to dismiss the vast majority of contemporary fiction, “aren’t there any Bartelbys?”
He was longing for Herman Melville’s famous naysayer, that larger-than-life scrivener whose unlikely eccentricities nonetheless speak to the human condition. Well, it turns out, there still are some Bartelbys. At least, they turn up in the pages of Cynthia Ozick’s 19th-century-influenced new novel.
In idea-besotted, always magical prose, Ozick tells the story of Rose Meadows, a serial orphan, having lost her sole parent and then abandoned by her cousin and caretaker, Bertram. Through an ad in an Albany newspaper, Rose finds her way into the employ of Rudolf Mitwisser, “the scholar of Karaism,” Karaism being an essentialist (and long defunct) sect of Jews that favored loyalty to the scriptures over rabbinical and Talmudic interpretation. Having fled the Nazis, Mitwisser and his family are in upstate New York because of a mistake. (The good-natured Quakers offered Mitwisser a job teaching what they believed to be his specialty, the Christian Charismites.)
When Rose first encounters the Mitwissers, they — with the financial assistance of a temporarily offstage patron, James A’Bair — are in the process of relocating to the Bronx. Rose’s job interview confuses her. Is she to be a tutor to the children? A helpmeet to Rudolf Mitwisser’s anxious wife? A secretary to Rudolf Mitwisser, the putative “great” man? Rose never gets an answer, but she is hired nonetheless.
The Mitwissers prove to be a chaotic family. A baby is always underfoot; three sons merge into a tumbleweed of energy. Frau Mitwisser is effectively (and perhaps purposely) crazy, spending days in bed, refusing to wear shoes and ignoring her youngest child. The family’s escape from Germany has left her with terrible memories … and no class or professional status.
Once the academic colleague of Erwin Schrödinger, Frau Mitwisser has turned her household over to her eldest daughter and abandoned her husband’s bed. She spends her days ranting about how she’s become a parasite, the dependent of James A’Bair, whom she detests.
Rudolf Mitwisser’s intellectual obsession (though Rose comes to share it) is puzzling, not least because his is hardly a spiritual household. “Belief,” as Ozick notes, isn’t “examination of belief.”
Into the Mitwisser’s hermetic world comes James A’Bair, a character inspired by Christopher Robin, though not the cute and internationally popular English boy but an American version of him. He, too, is obsessive and, like the Mitwisser parents, unable to escape the past.
What was, is, for all these characters, so they don’t develop new lives or see beyond their reigning monomania. Even cousin Bertram, who comes back into the story at strategic moments, is an obsessive.
Rose herself doesn’t have a distinguishing characteristic in the way the others here do. Indeed, she’s something of a blank. It is her encounter with the Mitwissers that presumably moves her forward, for while we never leave their orb, and rarely leave their Bronx home, Rose tells her story from some ambiguously future time, when she’s entered the (presumably) glimmering world.
In the end, Ozick’s Heir doesn’t have the charm of her wonderful The Puttermesser Papers, the intrigue of The Messiah of Stockholm or the horrifying realism of The Shawl, but it is a rich, often funny, rewarding read, one that makes of ideas an adventure.
MOTHER & MARTYR
Pearl By Mary Gordon
Pantheon Books, $24.95
Just how well do we know the people we live with and love — the parents who raised us, the children we gave birth to, the friends who have walked each step of our lives with us? Not all that well, suggests Mary Gordon in Pearl, her new novel that explores the mother-daughter bond with depth and complexity.
A triad of characters forms the heart of the narrative. There’s Pearl Meyers, a shy, young American woman studying linguistics in Ireland , who becomes embroiled in the politics surrounding the tentative peace process in the North. Pearl is awestruck by the story of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who’d called attention to his politics via his death by starvation and who has since been immortalized in the Irish psyche.
Pearl feels responsible for the accidental death of a friend’s teenage son, having spoken sharply to the young man prior to his fatal accident. In reparation for this and to call attention to the peace process, she launches her own hunger strike. The idea is to raise public awareness of the human drive to harm others and as a plea for the peace.
“She could use her death as she could not use her life,” Gordon writes. “Her death would be legible, audible. Her life, she believed, was dim and barely visible; her words feeble whispers, scratches at the door.”
Pearl’s assertive mother, Maria, who lives in New York, receives a call from the U.S. State Department on Christmas night to be summoned for help. Pearl, she learns, is chained to the U.S. Embassy’s flagpole in Dublin, refusing sustenance, warmth or medical care; she hasn’t eaten in six weeks.
Perhaps a mother’s intervention might make a difference. Maria can’t fathom what’s happening with her daughter. How did the girl she protected from stories of martyrdom and other Catholic sin-and-guilt ideas become a willing sacrificial victim?
The third main character, Joseph Kasperman, a docile dealer in religious artwork who’s been like a brother to Maria and a father to Pearl, is also summoned and flies in from Rome. As these three characters move through time and space to meet up again, readers learn of their histories, both commingled and separate.
Throughout the tale, the phrase “I don’t understand” is ubiquitous. Maria cannot comprehend how the daughter she raised could be so different from her, how Pearl could think that her death might be anything but tragic.
Pearl is certain that the public construal of her death will be straightforward: a statement proclaiming the need for peace. She fails to see that she is considered a potential suicide who may have an eating disorder.
Joseph, meanwhile, can’t figure out how he fits into the family picture with Pearl and Maria, and as he tries to force a place for himself, he upsets the balance that had sustained the triad over the years.
Readers, too, may have trouble understanding Pearl’s radical decision. The narrative works relentlessly — though not always successfully — to convince us of her sincerity. Gordon’s novel suggests a simple fact: We don’t understand each other. And yet we go on. We forgive and we receive forgiveness. We relinquish ideas like perfection and purity in favor of the messiness of life.
We persevere with a kind of faith — not necessarily a faith in God, but a belief that the impulse toward good is stronger than the desire to harm. When goodness and evil are weighed, Gordon’s novel intimates, it’s up to us to tip the scales in the direction of what is decent.
SURVIVAL OF THE ADAPTABLE
Runaway By Alice Munro
Alfred A. Knopf, $25
Alice Munro is a virtuoso at evoking the mood and atmosphere of rural Ontario and the British Columbia coast. Her curiosity about the lives of girls and women has intensified over 12 books and 50 years of publishing.
The characters in Runaway are often poor or low-income. These are lucid, unblinking portrayals of ordinary women coming and going, escaping, returning and trespassing. Munro’s eight memory-laden stories explore how family, social and geographical origins nourish and confine us.
Runaway’s fugitives, apostates, truants and renegades discover homes as harbors and as dungeons. Three stories follow Juliet through youth and middle age. These 112 pages bear the heft of a novella, but Munro, acknowledging life’s fragmentation, adeptly casts Juliet’s tale in self-contained narratives.
“Chance” introduces this classics student breaking away from her Ontario family to teach in British Columbia. Her cross-country train journey is colored by tragedy and romance that mark her forever. In “Soon,” Juliet brings her baby, Penelope, to meet the grandparents. “Silence” opens with Penelope, now 20, disappeared from home. In an ironic nod to Homer and Shakespeare, a heartbroken Juliet waits years for Penelope to return from her odyssey.
Adaptability is a talent shared by main characters in this and other Munro books. Shaped by a childhood during the Depression and World War II, Munro writes with spare expectation and comprehension of daily joys and calamities.
Disregarding the edgy hipness or intimate schmaltz of commercial fiction, Munro’s often omniscient storytellers examine economic struggle, emotional abandonment and the valor of continuing.
In “Passion,” Grace aches for worlds beyond her bleak youth. One summer, while waitressing in the Ottawa Valley, she agrees to marry Maury Travers. Actually, she has fallen in love with his family. Grace cherishes “memories of sitting at the Traverses’ round dining table or — when everybody finally got up and moved, with coffee or fresh drinks — sitting on the tawny leather sofa, the rockers, the cushioned wicker chairs, at the other end of the room.”
Clearly she would flourish in this ebullient, urbane clan, yet one day she risks everything for passion.
Lauren, the adolescent in “Trespasses,” is new in town. Too precocious for her schoolmates, she makes friends with Delphine, an eccentric older woman. Lauren’s parents fight more and more: “‘To talk’ meant to pace around the house delivering precise harangues of condemnation, shrieks of contradiction, until they had to start flinging ashtrays, bottles, dishes, at each other.”
Delphine seems an entertaining diversion, yet Lauren grows suspicious of the woman’s intensity and eventually discovers Delphine’s eerie connection to her family.
“Tricks” presents Robin, compromising her dreams of education and urbanity to become a hometown nurse and tend her asthmatic sister. Her annual respite is the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival. “Robin liked to have a good seat, so she could only afford a Saturday matinee … those few hours filled her with an assurance that the life she was going back to, which seemed so makeshift and unsatisfactory, was only temporary and could easily be put up with.”
One evening in Stratford, a stranger offers the prospect of transformation. Years later, a tricky revelation about the seductive stranger gives Robin an insight for which “Shakespeare should have prepared her.”
Described as old-fashioned by some critics, Munro is, rather, startlingly original. The consummate realist, she has an inimitable style that is characterized by a sensitive eye, keen intelligence and fierce conscience. The closest she gets to sentimentality is occasional melancholy in these provocative stories that are neither dark nor light, but beguiling shades of gray.