Daughter of the Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird

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What an absorbing read! Bird takes the bare bones of a forgotten slave, Cathy Williams, who posed as a man to join Sheridan’s army near the end of the U.S. Civil War and was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers. Then she fleshes those bones out in this captivating novel and clothes them, not just with uniforms but with fully imagined bindings.

When Sheridan on his quest to starve out the Confederate army raids the already-depleted Missouri tobacco farm, he finds little left to take: a scrawny chicken, some sweet potatoes, and a slave to help his cook. He thinks the slave he’s confiscated is a boy because of his britches, and Cathy quickly discovers that she needs to keep up the disguise if she’s to survive. Glad to be free of her cruel mistress but miserable at being torn from her mother and little sister, she calls herself William Cathay.

As a writer, I was intrigued by the choices the author had to make. What kind of woman could not only survive, but become an integral part of an army of men? Bird’s answer: a woman whose mother never let her child forget that she was the daughter of the daughter of an African queen, a mighty warrior who may have been captured and sold into slavery but never lost her pride and spirit.

How would the author handle the bathroom issues, often ignored in historical fiction, but so important here to Cathy’s disguise? Bird comes up with creative, believable solutions, not just for bathing and peeing, but also for Cathy’s “monthlies”.

How much historical context of the Civil War and the Buffalo Soldiers campaign against the Indians would she include? Bird makes the smart choice to tell the story as a memoir, in Cathy’s distinctive and engaging voice. In keeping with that choice, she concentrates on the vivid details of daily life—the size of cooking pots, tea with blackstrap molasses and condensed milk, training new recruits with hay and straw, the things that Cathy would have noticed—and leaves out the big events that Cathy wouldn’t have been aware of.

What about real historical figures? Too little is known about the real Cathy to guide how she is portrayed. I’m no expert on Sheridan and Custer, the only other real figures besides a glimpse of Lee at Appomattox, but the way they are shown here is consistent with their actions.

If I have one quibble with this novel, it is in the characterization. Cathy herself is brilliantly brought to life, and two other characters, Sheridan and the cook Solomon, are complicated men who evolve during the story. However, the other significant characters are either all good or all bad. The remaining black soldiers have no moral sense beyond immediate gratification and are easily led. The Indians, whom the Buffalo Soldiers are sent to quell, are an undifferentiated vicious and terrifying horde, though to be fair that is probably all Private Cathay would have known of them.

Of course there is a love story—it’s rare for female characters to be allowed any other plot—but luckily it is but one strand in the many stories of friendship and courage and leadership.

If you’re looking for a tale of a strong woman succeeding against terrible odds, if you want to be immersed in a time other than our own suddenly grim one, check out this novel.

What issues have you encountered with historical novels? What historical novels have you enjoyed?

Jordan County, by Shelby Foote

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It was the author’s name that caught my eye. Shelby Foote is of course the author of The Civil War. I didn’t know he wrote fiction, but this is only one of several novels. Well, it is subtitled A Novel. In reality, it is that always fascinating hybrid: a novel in stories.

Here it is in a novella and six other stories, all set in the fictional town of Bristol in Jordan County, Mississippi. They are the opposite of a traditional historical narrative because they start in 1950 and go backwards in time to 1797, lending a curious perspective, an unfolding of causes, each absorbed in its present moment, but leading up to the time when Foote was writing.

The first story is begins with Pauly arriving in Bristol on the train. A 25-year-old veteran, presumably of the Korean War, he walks through the town, perplexed by the new names on stores, the traffic lights, the new parking meters. A distracted man approaches.

“They changed it,” he said to the man. “They changed it on me while my back was turned.”

“How’s that?” The worried look did not leave the man’s face.

“The town. They changed it. It’s all new.”

These are stories about change, adjusting to it, creating it, fighting it. Some characters are caught in the shredded remnants of the past while others launch themselves into the future, all while we move through the Jazz Age, across the turn of the century, into Reconstruction, the war itself, the beginnings of the town, all the way to the clearing of the Choctaws.

Almost nowhere is more haunted by dreams of the past than Mississippi, home of William Faulkner who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In giving the life of Hector Sturgis, the novella tells of several generations of the Wingate-Sturgis family, centered in the mansion built by his grand-grandfather in 1835. On the first page we’re told that the mansion has been torn down after the death of Hector’s mother, as specified by her will, and turned into a public park.

Introduced almost as an omen of what is to come, the county is in the grip of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic when Hector is born. The description is eerily familiar: railroads and steamboats shut down, people confined to their homes.

Growing up, Hector inhabits a liminal space. Dressed by his doting mother as Little Lord Fauntleroy, he has no friends. The boys in town are briefly in awe of him but quickly turn to jeering at him. His domineering grandmother wins the power struggle over him leaving his mother seething with resentment. Spoiled, untrained in any practical skill, he is poorly equipped to take his place as a man. Yet he does have one remarkable skill.

As the story weaves and turns it began to remind me of Faulkner’s Wild Palms, that fever dream of the South, of unexpected love, of omens and tragedy and hauntings. Still, just as in the larger novel, we can see the unspooling of whims, decisions, and actions whose long tentacles entangle Hector and his family and threaten to drown them.

There’s brilliant choreography, within each story and in the novel as a whole. Foote releases information, ties things together with the most gossamer allusion, gives us the taste and feel of life in the past. These days I’m a vessel brimming with sadness for our world; Foote helps me see how we got here.

Have you read a novel in stories? How did the form work for you?

Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

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What a comfort reading is during this dark time! There is much to be afraid of and loved ones to be afraid for, but it’s important to take a break sometimes, be somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series in order. The two head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police formed during WWII to handle cases that could cause public unrest. Persisting into the present, it operates like no police department you’ve ever encountered and is constantly under threat of closure by traditional-minded administrators.

Arthur Bryant has his own methods which involve consulting museum curators, white witches, and his own offbeat but strangely useful collection of reference books. He’s a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor. Having more depth than the typical English eccentric, I’ve come to delight in the odd turns his thinking takes, even odder as he ages and others begin to suspect the beginnings of dementia.

John May’s reputation as a ladies’ man has taken a bit of a beating as he ages. With a more logical approach to solving crimes, he tries to protect his friend from his wilder flights and is the only one who stands up to him.

The other members of the PCU are, well, characters in the sense of being unique, believable, yet a little quirky. For instance, Janice Longbright is enamored of the style of 50’s screen actresses—makeup, heels, hair, clothes, the whole shebang—but not terribly practically for chasing suspects down dark alleys.

In this outing, Bryant and May are investigating the murder of a woman in one of London’s parks and gardens, originally called (at least once) its “wild chambers”. This garden is in an exclusive crescent, so it’s kept locked with only residents having access. How could a killer have gotten in? Where is her missing husband? And what does her murder have to do with one of Bryant and May’s cases a year earlier?

Since I’m unable to go to England this spring as planned, I especially relished the way the investigation led through many of London’s parks and gardens, calling up sweet memories for me.

In fact, London is the real protagonist of this series. The solution to the crimes almost always hinges on Bryant’s arcane knowledge of London’s past, whether it’s the history of Bedlam, the routes of lost underground rivers, or forgotten details about St. Pancras Old Church and King’s Cross.

Interestingly, Bryant and May is also the name of London-based company that ran match factories in the 19th century before being absorbed by other companies.

These two detectives would fit perfectly into a Golden Age mystery, though their stories are a bit darker than those standards. The stories don’t really fit into the various subcategories of mystery. Bryant and May aren’t amateurs, but the stories aren’t police procedurals—unless you’re willing to accept a perfectly wacky procedure. They aren’t cosies exactly, but neither are they grim crime novels. What they are is delicious. Funny, infectious, knowledgeable about human nature and London’s long history: the perfect vacation.

What are you reading? Does it give you rest, comfort or courage?

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This first novel from Coates, known for his nonfiction such as Between the World and Me, is the story of Hiram Walker, a young slave in Virginia whose been assigned to be the personal servant for his half-brother: the white, legitimate son of the plantation owner. Hiram’s mother was sold when he was nine, and curiously he has no memory of her. This is odd because otherwise he has perfect recall, a photographic memory.

Then one day when he is driving his feckless half-brother home, he has a vision of his mother dancing on the bridge they are approaching, and something extraordinary happens. He finds he has another, unsuspected power, one which he hopes to use to escape to the north.

Among the many wonderful layers in this story is Hiram’s ambivalent feelings towards his father. As a child he looked up to him as to a powerful god, but as he grows and begins to see the truth about the man’s failings, Hiram’s feelings become more complicated. He can’t completely lose that earlier desire to win his father’s approval. The portrait of the owner is equally nuanced, as he vacillates between treating Hiram as a son and as property. Because it’s so unusual an approach and overlaid with cultural roles, this is a great way to explore father-son relationships.

Another layer is Hiram’s new, magical power, which is called conduction. This becomes more important as the story goes on and he learns how to better use it. Supernatural powers and happenings were a significant part of slave culture, so its inclusion in this slave narrative makes sense. However, for me, this magical realism aspect dissipates some of the outrage at the mental and physical suffering of the enslaved people. Also, it seems to function as a deus ex machina in resolving problems.

To his credit, Coates does not make it easy for Hiram. For Hiram, using his powers is not like waving a magic wand, but instead is an exhausting and painful experience. It reminded me of my recurrent flying dreams as a child which were not lovely floating rides, but entailed my having to labor at a difficult breast stroke if I was to get to the person in need, a strenuous effort that always left me drained in the morning.

The writing, as you would expect from Coates, is gorgeous. His scenes draw me in, full of sensory details and poetic images that make places and stories come alive. I did not get a very deep sense of the characters, but this makes sense since we are seeing them through Hiram’s eyes. He is too young and inexperienced to be deeply perceptive about people—in fact his misunderstandings drive some of the plot. Also, this reflects the reality of slave life: People are constantly being torn away from you, sold south, or lost, so it’s better not to get too attached.

I loved the first part of the book, where even the narrative portions fascinated me, and Coates’s use of unusual terminology—the Tasked instead of slaves, the Low instead of poor whites, etc.—was delightful. However, after that, the story seemed to bog down, and I had to force myself to keep reading.

I thought about this problem for a long time, and I think it comes down to this: Once Hiram achieves his initial goal, the new goal motivating him is not strong enough to drive the story. The stakes do not seem high enough and not personal enough to make that goal matter. It is a worthy goal and certainly should matter a lot, but somehow it just isn’t convincing, at least for this reader.

Still, this coming-of-age story of a man’s journey to freedom is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I loved the unusual and nuanced way the story embodies the themes of family and memory. One of the episodes that most stands out to me is the brief story of a former slave Hiram meets who is trying to rescue the remainder of his family. Finally, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this novel vividly demonstrates the curious self-blindness, the dissociation that slave owners and supporters of slavery inculcated in themselves.

Have you ever shied away from a novel because it seemed as though its subject matter would be difficult or distressing? Did you ever, as I did with this book, go on to read it and be glad you did?

View with a Grain of Sand, by Wisława Szymborska

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I’ve had this edition of Szymborska’s Selected Poems for some time but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Luckily, my poetry discussion group chose her to be the poet we read this month. Unlike a book club where people read the book ahead of time, we meet and read the poems together and discuss. Here, though, I took advantage of the opportunity to read this collection by this Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.

I’m so glad I did! I love Szymborska’s understated wit skewering our preoccupations and assumptions. For example, in “Seen from Above”, she confronts a dead beetle in the road, unlamented because:

What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

I love her ability to focus intently on the small things, the brief moments of life and celebrate them—something that poetry is especially appropriate for. Here is “Vermeer”, quoted in its entirety:

As long as the woman from Rijksmuseum
in painted silence and concentration
day after day pours milk
from the jug to the bowl,
the World does not deserve
the end of the world.

I love her humor. She writes of wildly inventive dreams or uses the images of clouds floating across the sky and ants trudging through a checkpoint to make fun of our human preoccupation with borders. She even creates neologisms worthy of e. e. cummings, as in “Allegro Ma Non Troppo” which begins:

Life, you’re beautiful (I say)
you just couldn’t get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaley,
more anthillful or sproutsprouting.

I love the way she is able to write about the horrors of war in ways that do not accuse but rather appeal to our common humanity, or sometimes to our place in the natural world. In “The End and the Beginning”, she drily points out what perhaps only a woman might notice:

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

But she also notes that by cleaning everything up, we run the danger of the next generation forgetting what’s happened; sparing them the horror could lead them blithely into the next war.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In concentrating on themes and overall approaches, I haven’t mentioned her amazingly effective word choice, her use of repetition to add power, her sly allusions to a range of cultural artifacts from popular songs to the Bible. She often uses irony, something for which I have a bit of tin ear, so I’m grateful for others in the group pointing out possible ironic interpretations of some of the poems.

She also finds ways to celebrate life, as in “Miracle Fair”, where she applauds a variety of commonplace miracles, such as “cows will be cows” or “that the sun rose today and three fourteen a.m. / and will set tonight at one past eight”. As one member of the group exclaimed near the end of our discussion, I love this woman!

Have you read any of Szymborska’s poetry? Do you have a favorite among her poems?

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

beloved

Reading again this powerful book, I was deeply moved. It opens with Sethe and her 18-year-old daughter Denver in a house haunted by a spiteful spirit. After sexual assault and a brutal beating that left her back hideously scarred, a pregnant Sethe had escaped from slavery, making her way to Ohio outside Cincinnati where her mother-in-law lived. Denver was born just before Sethe arrived at Baby Suggs’s home, where she’d previously sent her other three children, two boys and a barely crawling girl.

It is that girl, Beloved, who haunts the house, shaking furniture from the walls, overturning the jam cupboard, hurting the dog. Only 21 days after Sethe arrived, the slave catcher showed up with her master and the sheriff. Rather than let them be taken into slavery, Sethe decides to kill her children and herself, but only succeeds in killing Beloved before she is stopped. A young mother myself when I first read the book, I was baffled by this beginning, but grew to understand it better as I read on.

Then Paul D., another slave from Sweet Home, shows up at Sethe’s house and drives out the ghost, only to—apparently—have it return in a different form.

I often forget aspects of books I’ve read (which comes in handy when I’m rereading mysteries), but not with this one. Although it had been quite a few years, having read it before left me free to notice and appreciate other aspects of the book.

For one thing, the way Morrison releases information is a master class in itself. In some instances, information only comes out later because the character doesn’t remember it or has worked hard to suppress it. Memory is a prominent theme in the book, its influence and—even when stifled—its inexorable return. In other places, information is hidden because the characters don’t know it yet or is mentioned but we don’t understand its meaning until later.

I was also interested in how the author handles the flow of time, having just read the fluid narrative of Celestial Bodies. Time here too is fungible, with the past intruding on the present, and not just in carefully transitioned flashbacks, but rather with the immediacy of thought., flitting through layers of memory. Unlike Alharthi’s novel, though, it does not flash forward into the future; that remains as mysterious as it is for all of us.

The first time I read Beloved I was too shocked at the vivid depiction of conditions under slavery and its legacy to pay much attention to much else. Not that I was naive about what humans were capable of. I’d followed the Eichmann trial, although I was barely into double digits then, and around the same time stumbled into a book called 100 Years of Lynchings that consisted of reprints of contemporaneous newspaper accounts—a chilling introduction to the horrors of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era that followed.

But what struck me this time was the lasting effects of slavery, both physical and emotional, the way it shaped African Americans, slaves and free, even their children. The way it shaped white people too. I thought a lot about what that kind of dissociation—the lies you have to tell yourself to be able to own slaves—does to the psyche, how you must have to shut down part of yourself, do away with emotional granularity, and lock yourself in a childishly simple world. I thought about people today who seem like hypocrites to me and wondered if they too live in that simple world and don’t even recognise their hypocrisy.

I thought too, as I often have recently, about the wealth of white people, accrued from the stolen labor of blacks, Mexicans and Chinese workers. And I thought about children being taken away from their families at the border and locked in cages and how that’s even worse than taking them away and selling them to another slave owner because then at least you have the hope however faint of possibly seeing them again.

We are all haunted by the past. Not just our own, but also that of our parents and grandparents. And not just by what really happened, but also by the illusions peddled by profiteers and our own rose-colored recollections.

Have you read this extraordinary book? What impressed you most about it?

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?