Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi

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I’m in a few book clubs and, luckily for me, they are all interested in reading more diverse authors, hence this Man Booker-winning novel by Alharthi, who is an author and university professor from Oman. It is the story of three sisters and their extended family in a rural village outside the capital of Oman during the late twentieth century when the culture in that country was rapidly and unevenly changing.

Mayya, the oldest sister, doesn’t have much to do with the outside world, preferring to stay at home sewing. When her parents inform her that she will be married to Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman, they do not know she’s in love with a young man recently returned from London, whom she’s seen from afar twice. Mayya obediently marries Abdallah but names her first child, a girl, London.

Asma, the second sister, finds her joy in books and traditional religion. When her parents inform her that Khalid wants to marry her, she insists on taking a few days to decide, but eventually agrees. He is an artist whose ideal wife, as it turns out, is someone who will fall “into the orbit he had marked out, who would always be there but would also always stay just outside, yet without wanting to create her own celestial sphere, her own orbit.”

Khawla is more modern, wearing lipstick and adamantly refusing to marry anyone but her beloved Nasir who eventually rewards her devotion by marrying her but immediately decamps for Canada where he lives with his girlfriend, returning more or less annually, just long enough to get the faithful Khawla pregnant.

Marriage is not the only area where customs and mores are changing. Social classes, education for women, contact with the outside world: all of these are in motion and thus reflected in the fluidity of the book’s structure. Instead of a single plot with subplots, there are a multitude of plot threads that come to the fore and disappear, sometimes returning, sometimes not, a structure that seems to mirror what life was like for those living through such upheaval.

The brief chapters shift between a multitude of voices, making all of us in the book club rely heavily on the genealogical chart in the front of the books. Most chapters move between the sisters’ voices and those of others: their parents, London, even Zarifa, originally Sulayman’s slave, now a servant and his mistress. Almost all are women’s voices. We all preferred the book’s original title, literally translated as Ladies of the Moon.

These are interspersed with chapters of Abdallah’s first person narration. We questioned why a man should have so much real estate in a book primarily about women and be the only one addressing us directly. The only thing we could think of is that his prominence reflects the male privilege still dominating the culture. The irony is that although Abdallah’s chapters all take place on planes (he flies around the world for work), he and the other men are the characters most confined and hobbled by their roles.

Time is also extremely fluid in this book, sometimes moving decades forward and then backward into the past all in the same paragraph. Readers like me who tend to prefer a mostly linear and chronological plot may struggle to keep track of what is going on and who the characters are. Yet the effort brings a huge reward, not just in a glimpse into a—for me—unfamiliar culture, nor just the vivid and sometimes intoxicating language, but also the enlightening experience of navigating a changing world.

What diverse voices are you reading?

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison

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In the 1950s Reverend Hickman, an elderly black preacher, brings members of his congregation to Washington D.C. They attempt—unsuccessfully—to visit white Senator Sunraider, an outspoken racist, and are in the Senate chamber when he is shot.

As Hickman sits beside the critically ill senator’s hospital bedside, he remembers the man’s past as the child called Bliss whom the preacher had raised. Hickman had been first a trumpet-playing jazzman and then a minister, but he’d always raised Bliss as part of the black community despite his white appearance. Eventually he trained Bliss to preach alongside him. Sunraider himself remembers differently, when he’s not trying to bury those memories. After running away, Bliss rejected the past and reinvented himself first as a filmmaker and then as a politician.

Their thoughts gallop and pause and race on, with a dazzling drive that makes it hard to tear yourself away. Unforgettable scenes are set and hearts opened in language like a mighty river, gorgeous and terrible. Here is an excerpt from a scene Bliss/Sunraider remembers of an encounter with a young woman during his movie-making days (ellipses are part of the text):

. . . And I could tell you how I drew her close then and how her surrender was no surrender but something more, a materialization of the heart, the deeper heart that lives in dreams—or once it did—that roams out in the hills among the trees, that sails calm seas in the sunlight; that sings in the stillness of star-cast night . . .

Much of the drive comes from the rhythms of jazz and the oratorical fire of the pulpit embedded in the language. Here is a portion of a remembered service that features a call and response between Hickman and young Bliss after the older man has described the “floating coffins” that yet were Christian ships bringing them out of Africa (emphasis and ellipses are part of the text):

Amen, Daddy Hickman, amen. But now the younger generation would like to know what they did to us when they got us here. What happened then?

They brought us up onto this land in chains . . .

. . . In chains . . .

. . . Into the fever swamps, they marched us . . .

And they set us to work draining the swampland and toiling in the sun . . .

. . . They set us to toiling . . .

They took the white fleece of the cotton and the sweetness of the sugarcane and made them bitter and bloody with our toil . . . And they treated us like one great unhuman animal without any face . . .

Without a face, Rev. Hickman?

Without personality, without names, Rev. Bliss, we were made into nobody and not even Mister Nobody either, just nobody. They left us without names. Without choice. Without the right to do or not to do, to be or not to be . . .

This is a story, then, about time and memory, about history and the wounds of the past. It is a story about the difficulty of communication. We have lavish access to both men’s thoughts and memories, but their actual dialogue in the hospital room is strained and limited. It is truly a Great American Novel, addressing the great American Wound, sparing nobody.

This book was a lot more coherent and easy to read than I expected. Ellison had been working on this second novel, following his popular and National Book Award-winning Invisible Man, from 1953 until his death in 1994. But Ellison struggled to find the right structure for his magnum opus, deleting, rewriting, and adding to it to the point where he thought it might actually be three books.

His literary executor John F. Callahan took on the monumental task of sorting the disorganised mass of material for what Callahan calls “a mythic saga of race, identity, language and kinship in the American experience.” From hundreds of pages of Ellison’s notes and excerpts Callahan selected the story of Reverend Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider as the part that best stands alone.

Their story holds the possibility of healing, not just of the rift between the two men or the gap between past and present, but what separates us all.

Have you read this astonishing book? What did you think of it?

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

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Kadish’s fourth novel is a stunning story that braids the tale of a modern-day historian with that of a seventeenth-century woman who was brought to London by a rabbi when her parents died in Amsterdam after fleeing the Inquisition in Spain. It’s a brilliant fusion of genres: historical fiction, women’s fiction, thriller, mystery and romance.

Helen, a specialist in Hebrew history on the verge of mandatory retirement and in poor health, is contacted by a former student about a cache of documents found in the London house he and his wife are renovating. She enlists the aid of Aaron, a brash American graduate student who’s hit a roadblock with his PhD thesis.

This unlikely duo are startled to find that the books and papers do indeed date from the 1650s and 1660s, the library and letters of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. But it is the identity of his scribe, signed merely as “Aleph” that captivates them. Helen finds evidence that Aleph may be a woman and the literary hunt is on as, vexed by conservators and rival historians, not to mention their own thorny relationship, the two try to learn more about Aleph.

These chapters are interspersed with the story of Ester Velasquez as she discovers the terrible beauty of learning. When the blind rabbi asks her to read to him and write letters for him, she becomes hungry for more, reading widely in philosophy and beginning herself to write her thoughts—things that were not allowed for women at that time.

This extraordinarily well-researched book brings to life the world of London just before and during the plague years and great fire. One detail stood out for me: that several kinds of ink were used, one of which—iron gall ink—disintegrates the paper so that hundred of years later the letters show up as empty space on a page.

This image fuels the title: the weight that ink—reading and writing—places on Ester’s life, making her question her religion and the constructs of society, making her unwilling to marry since that would mean giving up the world of the mind for the daily round of chores.

It also speaks to the silence of women in that time. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister”, where she imagines a sister with his genius, “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

There’s a story here for everyone. You’ve got a literary puzzle like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a thriller as time runs out for Ester and for Helen and Aaron. There’s the social history of Jewish London at the time, fractured between upper-class Portuguese and working class Tudesco (German, meaning Ashkenazi) Jews. You’ve got insights into the different burdens placed on men and on women, both now and in the past. There’s fascinating information about conserving documents and philosophy and bountiful insight into the human heart.

For me, much as I enjoyed Ester’s chapters and the evocation of seventeenth-century London, curious as I was as to how she could possibly reconcile her warring nature with itself and society, it was Helen’s chapters that most captured my attention. We do not often enough read about a woman’s relationship with her work (or a man’s for that matter, outside of writing). Helen’s own history, her concern for not just the things but the lessons of the past, her education of this her last student: these combine to show what a woman’s life-work can be.

This is a long book, but it’s worth taking the time to sink into it. And as you get further in, you’ll find the story accelerating such that you will hardly bear to set it aside even for a moment.

Have you read a novel that effectively fuses literary genres?

Jimmy’s Blues, by James Baldwin

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I’d read fiction and nonfiction by Baldwin but not his poetry, so I welcomed this chance to delve into it. This collection actually includes some of his later poems as well as the ones from the original Jimmy’s Blues.

Some of the poems have the fire that I expected, the anger held in check that powers his stories. In his long poem “Staggerlee wonders”, he doesn’t pull his punches, as in this timely excerpt.

Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
are original?

There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.

Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?

Some are witty and sharp like “Guilt, Desire and Love” where he personifies the three as a nighttime encounter on a street corner that ends up causing “a mighty traffic problem”. Others prompt philosophical musings about time and change and memory, such as these lines from “The Giver”: “The giver is no less adrift / than those who are clamouring for the gift.”

His diction can move from high-brow to street slang and back without missing a beat. Many of the poems use repetition and rhythm to summon energy that drives the poems forward, some so jazz-infused they almost seem like scat singing.

Others speak of love, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pain, but also with tenderness, as in these lines from “Song For The Shepherd Boy”:

Hey. The rags of my life are few.
Abandoned priceless gems are scattered
here and there
I don’t know where—
never expected to have them,
much less need them,
but, now, an ache, like the beginning
of the rain,
makes me wonder where they are.

If I knew, I would go there,
traveling far and far
and find them
to give them to you.

His generous line breaks lend weight to even the simplest words, making us pause and recognise their significance. While almost never using a formal rhyme scheme, Baldwin deploys rhyme to spice up a subtle passage or to playfully undercut a solemn theme.

There’s outrage here, and bitter anger. There’s existential despair and heartbreak. But there’s also a recognition of what keeps a people going, as in this last stanza of “Munich, Winter 1973”:

Just as the birds above our heads
circling
are singing,
knowing
that, in what lies before them,
the always unknown passage,
wind, water, air,
the failing light
the failing night
the blinding sun
they must get the journey done.
Listen.
They have wings and voices
are making choices
are using what they have.
They are aware
that, on long journeys,
each bears the other,
whirring,
stirring
love occurring
in the middle of the terrifying air.

Have you read any of Baldwin’s work recently?